The "Church Basement Ladies" series of musicals is broad comedy in more ways than one.
The sitcom-style shows -- with colorful, cartoonish characters -- revolve around four women who help their good-hearted pastor keep a Norwegian Lutheran church in rural Minnesota humming, while singing the praises of love, faith, family and small-town life. You don't have to be Lutheran (or female) to identify with the joys and sorrows of this gregarious group.
"A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement" is the fourth in the CBL series, which launched in Minneapolis in 2005, and is the second chronologically in the story of its quintet of characters. The heartfelt, charming and idealistic show is given an ideal production by many CBL veterans at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse -- including the core duo behind the scenes, director Curt Wollan and composer/music director Drew Jansen.
"These ladies give of themselves freely to their church," Mr. Wollan -- who commissioned the series -- said before a preview last week. "They need to be celebrated and they weren't being celebrated. I've known so many church basement ladies. They are very special women, dedicated to their churches and to their communities."
In "A Mighty Fortress," it's 1960 and the ladies are dealing with raising money for a youth trip, an important confirmation, the wedding of Pastor Gunderson and a flooded basement. While there are just nine songs (and two reprises) in the show, each is a standout.
"Boogie Woogie Bulwark" is a lot of fun, with strong harmonies and counterpoint in four parts. Beverly, (a perky, determined Kimberly Steffen) 15-year-old daughter of Karin (a worried, warm, wonderful Carrie SaLoutos), is preparing for her confirmation. She dreams of what's next in "After I'm Confirmed." The older, wiser ladies caution it's not always better when you're an adult.
Pastor (the dependable, hammy Tom Walljasper) leads the driving "Ballad of Mrs. Elroy Engleson," which tells of Karin's adventures learning to drive, which shows the four ladies in a mock truck. Ms. SaLoutos sings the touching "Growing Up, Letting Go" as Beverly practices her confirmation answers.
A number of CBL characters are discussed but are never seen on stage. Here, they include Helen, the pastor's fiancee who has Catholic relatives and a quite well-endowed maid of honor, Celeste. One of the many funny high points is when Vivian (Kay Francis) comes in from a rainstorm after seeing Celeste and her twin assets. Ms. Francis enters dramatically to a loud clap of thunder, her mouth agape.
Another is when the pastor gets embarrassed walking in on Mavis (Nikki Savitt) doing "The Twist" with a kitchen towel, hiking up her skirt so her slip is visible.
Mavis is facing the loss of her farm with the building of an interstate highway. Ms. Savitt unleashes the powerful, inspiring ode to agriculture, "Born to Farm," which I'm thinking could be used as a John Deere theme song. Its proud, passionate lyrics include -- "Cow is my cologne/Makeup is mostly mud/I was born to farm/It's in my blood."
It's among many life changes the ladies face, and Vivian (the oldest and a widow) is the most vocal about lamenting the progress. She doesn't even think the pastor should get married this soon after his first wife died three years earlier. "That's a lifetime if you're a chicken," Mavis retorts. I also really like the line, "Sermons should be like a woman's skirt -- long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep a guy interested."
Mr. Walljasper leads an exuberant tribute to Helen, singing of when they met in "All Heaven Broke Loose." The upbeat, gospel-infused toe-tapper is complemented (not sure why) by the ladies in brightly spotted rain slickers and umbrellas. It provides a big finish to Act I and a satisfying finale at the show's close.
In a fun flashback to the county fair, Mr. Walljasper gets to play a string of showy carnies. Vivian is grand champion for her pickles and wears a crown of the cucumbers in a rambunctious "Pickle Queen" number, a grand waltz.
"That's Lutheran Love" reflects the essence of men, who often are not verbal creatures. The song notes: "Love is what he does, not what he says," and that "words are redundant."
The women have to move the wedding reception to the Catholic church because of their flooded basement. That provides fodder for jokes about the similarities and differences between the basements.
Vivian lets her guard down while snooping around the Catholics' kitchen, at first nervously covering her head like it's enemy territory. Ms. Francis gets into a bottle (thinking it's maple syrup) and gets drunk on blackberry brandy.Again, all heaven breaks loose, and it's simply divine.
Ms. Francis -- a newcomer to Circa -- is perfect in the fussy, crabby part, which makes her transformation and rocky road to redemption all the more delightful.
Mr. Walljasper and Ms. Savitt have been in every CBL production at Circa -- the original in 2007 and 2009 and "A Second Helping" in 2010. In fact, Ms. Savitt has done over 450 performances as Mavis in the past six years across the country, but there's nothing routine or rote about her here. Her energy, wit and enthusiasm are infectious.
The strong Ms. SaLoutos may be familiar to Circa audiences from the theater's "Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical," "The Dixie Swim Club" and "Whodunit…The Musical." The eager, brash Ms. Steffen -- who recently graduated from Minnesota State University in musical theater -- is a native of Spencer, Iowa, and also has performed her part in a national tour.
If you go
-- What: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement"
-- When: Through June 1; Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:45 p.m. (buffet dinner served from 6 to 7 p.m.), Sundays at 5:45 p.m. (buffet dinner served from 4 to 5 p.m.) and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m. (plated lunch served 12 to 12:45 p.m.).
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: Dinner and show are $48.07 for the evening performances and $42.32 for the matinees, available at 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or circa21.com.
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