They’re back! The Church Basement Ladies are up to their old tricks as they serve good tidings and joy at the Fallon House Theatre in Columbia. The title of the latest installment, “Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas,” offers a taste of the corny puns, jokes and wordplay you will enjoy. This is a fine Christmas season production by Sierra Repertory Theatre.
Director Becky Saunders has whipped up a sweet dish just in time for the holiday season. Sporting lively and amusing, if not exactly memorable, tunes with 1950s flair and scenery that is straight out of my childhood, the play slips back into another world, where today’s concerns fade for a time while you relax into some healthy chuckles.
Because the show is set in 1959 – when it was the custom to address married women by the missus honorific – three of the four members of kitchen crew at the East Cornucopia Church of the Prairie in in rural Minnesota are listed by their married names: Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson, Mrs. Lars Snustad and Mrs. Elroy Engelson. So, before the action even gets underway, the audience is asked to settle into the time period.
Of course, the minute you enter the warmly engaging kitchen – a period set that is charmingly accurate in every detail – you’ll be on a first-name basis with the ladies.
Saunders, who also plays Mavis, is a constant source of comedy. Mavis is the maven who is not afraid to get down on the floor or head into the snow to fix things. Her humor sends gales of laughter through the audience again and again, but especially when she ends up in unladylike positions just as the pastor comes through the door.
Chris Vettel returns in the role of Pastor E.L. Gunderson. Vettel slips into the role like a comfortable sweater. With amiable appeal, he portrays the fumbling pastor who tries to keep the peace and play no favorites among the ladies. A fledgling romance has put a spring in his step, but evokes mixed reactions from the church ladies.
Karla Franko lends a feisty element to the tradition-minded Vivian, who is totally out of sorts not only by the pastor’s romantic interest, but by the red hymnals and changes to the tried-and-true Christmas program that has worked for years at the church.
Karin, played by Robyne Parrish, is the most sensible of the group, mostly because she wants everyone to be happy. Parrish has a gorgeous voice, which she lends to the most playful lyrics I’ve ever heard in a musical. The only thing that seems to unsettle Karin, however, is her daughter.
Quinn Farley adds a sprig of youth to the basement ladies in the role of Beverly Engelson, Karin’s daughter. Farley delivers equal measures of bounce and pout to the 15-year-old, who regularly reminds the older women that she’s almost an adult. She convincingly portrays a bit of Eisenhower-era sass when declaring she doesn’t want to play Mary in the Christmas program anymore.
Getting back to the music in the production, one of my favorite tunes is “Not Mary Material,” which features Mavis, the robust female who tackles all the dirty work. The lyrics involve her recollections of always being cast as a shepherd rather than Mary in the Christmas program. This is just one example of how the lyricist, Drew Jensen, infuses hilarity into the musical numbers.
There are sentimental musical moments as well, like when Vettel sings “I Think You’d Like Her” to his deceased wife, and Franko’s sweet rendition of the Norwegian Christmas song, “Jeg Er Sa Glad.”
“Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas” is a light, frothy piece with a pinch of nutmeg nostalgia, heartfelt enough to make you yearn for the best parts of the season: family, fellowship and festivities. All in all, this gently amusing production is an easygoing sip of Christmas cheer that offers a respite from the garish and stressful overload of the holidays. Catch it by Dec. 9, when the basement eggnog is put away.
WHEN: 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 9
WHERE: Fallon House Theatre, 11175 Washington St., Columbia
TICKETS: $20 to $47 at sierrarep.org or call 532-3120
Leave a Reply