BWW Reviews: Gaslight Dinner Theatre Serves Up Some Hot Dishes in CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES


It makes no difference the region in which you were raised or now live, nor does the church in which you grew up or now worship and, seemingly, it doesn't matter what your ethnic heritage is: There is a commonality, a universality that binds us all together as a society. And while all of that is a given, it's driven home with the gentle humor and the good graces of Church Basement Ladies, the sweetly evocative and sometimes hilarious musical onstage at The Gaslight Dinner Theatre, in a warmly acted production directed by Nathan W. Brown.

With a five person cast that includes The Renaissance Center's producing artistic director of theater-one Pacer Harp, who is nothing shy of beloved among his loyal patrons at the Dickson cultural edifice-Brown and company bring the stories from a smalltown Lutheran church in Minnesota farm country (somewhere not too far from "The Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where sin and temptation abound and people of loose morals clog up the freeway, we learn) to life with generous helpings of good humor and commitment.

Written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, with music and lyrics by Drew Jensen, Church Basement Ladies is inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, who cover the same territory in their book Growing Up Lutheran. It's niche theater, this show is, yet the universality of the stories related in Church Basement Ladies ensure that they're palatable to anyone and everyone whoever grew up in a small town, where churches provide much of the social life of the citizenry. So, you don't have to be Lutheran or have an appetite for lutefisk (thank you, Bobby Hill-son of Hank and Peggy-for supplying us with the information needed on that score) to enjoy the show's humor and easily forgettable music. Heck, all those Baptists in the audience when I saw the show (who, coincidentally, were from my hometown in West Tennessee-but I swear I didn't see anyone who looked even vaguely familiar) sure seemed to be having a good time, laughing and guffawing and no doubt identifying with the onstage hijinks.

Set in the basement kitchen and dining room of the church, where the Pastor E.L. Gunderson (Harp) struggles to maintain his own identity while competing against his older brother's church (the two sons are preacher's kids, so there's a feeling of Lutheran royalty here), Church Basement Ladies is set in a period between December 1964 (when the church is hosting a lutefisk dinner) and July 1968 (when there's a wedding afoot).  Harp is wonderfully cast as the Pastor and shows off his deadpan comic skills to perfection in the role.

In the kitchen, we meet Vivian Snustad (convincingly played by the far younger Marilyn Fair, who is nothing short of stunning with silver hair), the church's grande dame who rules the kitchen with an iron fist in a frilly oven glove; Mavis Gilmerson (Kiersten Vorheis in a perfectly nuanced comic performance that very nearly steals the show from her comrades), a farm wife who knows her way around any broken down machinery or furnace; and Karin Engelson (Holly Wooten delivers a thoroughly focused performance, maintaining her regional accent from start to finish, and capturing in her performance the sense of change that permeated the decade of the '60s), arguably the best cook in the congregation who must wait her turn at the controls of the rangetop. Karin's daughter, Signe, a student at the UofM, spends her holidays at home and helps out around the church kitchen-she is played by Michelle Valenti (again delivering an impressively winning performance).

The ladies, aided and abetted by Pastor Gunderson, tell us all about the church's hierarchies, the food traditions that bring the community together, and the social strata that determine each woman's role in the town and in the church. Those universal tales are what makes Church Basement Ladies an easy sale to audiences; virtually everyone can tell stories of similar ilk and most can identify with the characters and their lives, particularly if you are from a small town yourself. The tenor of the times-don't forget, the mid-1960s were a time of social upheaval and struggle-remains largely in the background, and the realities of the greater world seem far removed from the frigid Minnesota farm country.

Brown's direction moves the show along at a good pace (it never drags) and his creative eye ensures that even the simplest of musical numbers is presented with great charm and commitment.

However, Drew Jansen's music and lyrics (which certainly serve their purpose) are not especially memorable. The words and music are pleasant, they help to advance the story as one would expect from musical theater and they are performed with vigor and enthusiasm by the immensely talented cast assembled by Brown (who also music directs). Still, if you leave the theater and can't remember even one melody or lyric, that's disappointing.

Nathan Ray's lighting design for the production is ideally conceived and rendered, showing off the expansive and detailed set. Rachel Gallup, the company's dedicated, devoted and creative costume designer, provides the cast with the right clothes that help them portray their characters and the period in which they live.

And no trip to the Gaslight Dinner Theatre would be complete without the groaning board of delicious eats upon which audiences feast before curtain. For Church Basement Ladies, the menu focuses almost exclusively on "hot dishes" that would likely be given a starring role on the church's own "dead spread." The green bean casserole, the scalloped potatoes and the chicken divan were all divine and tasty-in other words, just what the congregation ordered.

Church Basement Ladies. Written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke. Music and lyrics by Drew Jansen. Inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson. Direction and musical direction by Nathan W. Brown. Choreographed by Bryan J. Wlas. Presented by The Gaslight Dinner Theatre at The Renaissance Center, Dickson. Continuing through May 26. For details, go to or call (615) 740-5600.

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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