“Church Basement Ladies” Return For More

Written by Terry DeBoer on . Posted in Local

Rise Up O men - threesomePastor Gunderson (center) deals with both Carl and Mavis in “Church Basement Ladies: Rise Up, O Men” Attention church basement ladies everywhere. The men are about to engulf your territory!

That's the humorous premise of "Rise Up, O Men," the sixth installment of the popular stage musical-comedy series "Church Basement Ladies."

"The roosters have invaded the henhouse," smiled executive producer Curt Wollan from a stop in Palm Springs, CA.

The production comes to Byron Center's Van Singel Fine Arts Center on March 26.

The setting is familiar to long time fans: East Cornucopia Lutheran Church in rural Minnesota back in the 1950s and 60s when church basement kitchens were a social hub with their own pecking order.

With surnames such as Gilmerson, Snustad and Engleson – common in Upper Midwest Norwegian circles – the irresistible ladies have held court since their 2005 stage debut – always careful to work around their beleaguered church pastor, E.L. Gunderson. Characters are based on the book "Growing Up Lutheran" by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson.

Wollan says the original authors sit in on writing sessions for each of the different plays, while scripts and music are fleshed out by his creative team.

THE MEN'S PERSPECTIVE

In "Rise Up O Men" the church kitchen facilities have grown "weary" and the men enter the space to make repairs. "The pastor gets to help but he's not very handy," Wollan noted.

     
 

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One of the gentlemen is Karin Engleson's husband Elroy. There's also the local John Deere tractor dealer (Carl) and a WWI veteran (Arlo).
"You finally get to see these men who the ladies have been talking about through the first five episodes," said the producer.

Their male "practicality" finds them rearranging the kitchen accessories and taking other liberties - to the ladies' dismay. And they deal with several other developments as they spout their own home-spun wisdom.

The music of the series fits the era – from ballads to doo-wap to early rock 'n roll.

"It's really a live, sit-com kind of show with a lot of Lucy and Ethel moments," he said, referencing the era's TV classic "I Love Lucy."

"Or you might call it 'Seinfeld' for old people," he smirked.

The script is respectful of the Christian faith, although it's perhaps too easy to point out the foibles and missteps of church social life.

"We tease Catholics in the show, and the Catholics love that," Wollan offered. "And there's the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians...we have a good time as we all realize that we're in the same game."

Obviously you don't need to be Lutheran – or even a church goer – to appreciate the life events in "Church Basement Ladies."

"It's like 'Fiddler On the Roof.' That's about love and acceptance and change, and just happens to be Jewish. Here, the world is changing and the basement has to move on. It's pretty universal."

THE CHARACTER CONNECTIONS

After Wollan opened the original production 14 years ago, he knew he had a hit. "We had to double cast it so we could do a dozen shows a week," he said of its initial, two-year run in a Minnesota playhouse.

In the succeeding years they've added shows and expanded their touring nation-wide. In early March there were three separate theatres in the Los Angeles area staging the productions.

"Everybody has their favorite characters," Wollan said of the continuing personalities in the plays that include the titles "A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement" and the Christmas-themed "Away in the Basement."

"Every time we write another one we say,'This is it.' But then we get people calling and asking about the next one."

Wollan's theatre company "Troupe America" owns exclusive touring rights for the series, although licenses are granted to local theatre groups.

IN GOOD HANDS

Wollan, 67, is a natural for his role in nurturing the Basement Ladies franchise. He is Minnesota-born and Lutheran-raised. "Lakeview Lutheran Church in Maplewood," he said of his boyhood church in a St. Paul suburb.

"My mom was a big time church basement lady. I remember her in the kitchen laughing with her friends...that was their country club," he recalled.

The plays offer a heavy dose of nostalgia. He admits most of their audiences are baby boomers who remember that slice of church life "back in the day."

"With women out in the work force more and more you don't see as much of this," he noted of the modern trend toward catered rather than church-cooked meals.
Already there's a seventh play in the series – based on another Martin-Nelson book. "You Smell Barn" features a story which actually gets the ladies out of the kitchen and into farm life.

"These characters remind people of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers...whomever," Wollan noted. "It was a era when people had time to serve and gave of themselves freely."

Details:

The Church Basement Ladies in "Rise Up O Men," a musical comedy
7:30pm Tues. March 26, 2019
Van Singel Fine Arts Center, Burlingame Ave. at 84th St. SW Byron Center
(at Byron Center High School)
Tickets: Adult $35, students $22; at the box office or online.
Phone:616-878-67800
     
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Author Information
Terry DeBoer
About:
Terry is journalist who writes for newspapers, magazines, newsletters and websites. His most frequented “beat” is arts and entertainment. He is married with two children and lives in Grand Rapids.

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