BWW Reviews: CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES - Top of Your 'Must-See' List

BWW Reviews: CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES - Top of Your 'Must-See' List




Say this much for the musical "Church Basement Ladies"...It's so light and tame that it will never be mistaken for "Spring Awakening" or "The Book of Mormon." If you want a delightful evening of theatre with a show that dares not to make waves, that celebrates the everyday pleasures of small town living in the 1960's, then ease on down to the new Jimmy Ferraro Studio Theatre in New Port Richey and get your tickets now.

"Church Basement Ladies," the inaugural production of this new theatre, is like a Lutheran "Steel Magnolias" with "Fargo" accents. Based on the book "Growing Up Lutheran," it follows four years in the life of four Minnesota women-the Ladies of the East Cornucopia Lutheran Church of the Prairie. Their songs focus on odes to butter, the love of Spam and macaroni salad, and the unholy horrors of big city life versus the simple pleasures of small town America. Despite their use of the iconic phrase "ya betcha," these ladies (and their friendly if clueless pastor) are as recognizable as your next-door neighbors.

Set in the mid-1960's, the show opens with an ode to the various "flavorless" dishes the ladies bring to different gatherings, and it ends with the ultimate dessert-a wedding cake. In between, we spend time with these characters as the world outside drastically changes, whether they like it or not. Some things that we take for granted-vegetarian lasagna, for example-were quite exotic back in 1965, a time when phones had actual dials and the only "app" anyone would have is an "appetite."

Act 1 is set at a time where the young were more concerned with John, Paul, George and Ringo than with John, Matthew, Mark and Luke. The big Bob Dylan song of the era, alluded to by one of the characters, was "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and that could be the motto of the show itself.

"Church Basement Ladies" is a snapshot of the moment before everything went crazy in the 1960's....when the everyday, middle-of-the-road life started changing in the church as well as in the world. The show subtly showcases that change, opening with freezing weather and a broken furnace and then slowly thawing into the literal heat of Act 2. In some ways, wasn't that what the decade of the Sixties was really about...a thawing of the morals, an opening of the mind and heart, an evaporating of the past and replacing it with the heat of mod change. Although no beatniks or hippies are present in the show or even talked about, you know they're out there, in the cities, far away from these Lutheran ladies.

The show is feather-light without a bad thought in its head. The Drew Jansen musical numbers, including such songs as "Dead Spread," "Sing a New Song" and "Closer to Heaven (in the Church Basement)," vary in quality (including a "Company" allusion that tickled this musical theatre fan-"Here's to the ladies who fix the lunch..."). Any deficiencies in the songs and the script are swept away by director David Craven's heavenly cast.

Dee Etta Rowe, as the quirky Mavis, is a scene-stealing comedienne in the Andrea Martin mold. When she's onstage, shaking her booty to the "Pale Food Polka," you cannot take your eyes off her. It is a godsend having such a brave performer on our local stages; watching her is like being in a graduate seminar on stage presence. She shines.

Nicole Cavalani and Katie Miesner, as mother and daughter Karin and Signe, are the heart and soul of the show. Their relationship is very real, and they both command the stage with strong acting chops and incredible singing voices. We could watch a variety of plays with just these two talented performers, and I know I am not alone in hoping to see more of them in future shows.

The always likable Pete Clapsis makes the most of his part as Pastor Gunderson, and his eulogistic musical number, "Song for Willie," is a highlight. If it doesn't bring a tear to your eyes, then you might want to check your pulse.

Linda Copperfield, as Vivian, the Lutheran lady who most resists the changing times, lends sturdy support. (Her luau attire, complete with drooping coconut shells, is not be missed.)

It's amazing what the designers and builders were able to do with such an intimate space. The set is brilliantly detailed; I particularly like the period piece pictures (including one of a Sixties era lion with a pink mane, and another stuck on a fridge of a stick figure drawing that the actress playing Signe actually drew herself). Tech is spot-on; costumes are appropriate for the location and time period (although I wish the script would bring out more of the mother's changing mores so her colorful dress of 1968 in the final scene would make more sense).

Definitely see "Church Basement Ladies" and this incredible new space. If you are a Lutheran, a churchgoer of any denomination or from the Minnesota area, it should be top of your must-see list. For those who are not Sunday celebrants, the outstanding performances, character bonding and the truths of these four women will resonate. The sold-out audience was enthralled the night I went, appreciative at seeing professional performers shining on a brand new stage.

As for the Jimmy Ferraro Studio Theatre, it looks like it will be a New Port Richey touchstone for a long time to come. This particular show is a perfect way to get the artistic ball rolling in this darling, quaint new space. The surroundings make the audience feel so comfortable, so at home. And with that, we all would like to say to Mr. Ferraro as well as to the cast and crew of "Church Basement Ladies": Welcome home!

"CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES" plays through JUNE 29th, 2014. Tickets are $25.00 including tax. Jimmy Ferraro's STUDIO THEATRE is located in historic Downtown New Port Richey, FL at 5732 MAIN STREET. For tickets call 727-409-0293. The next prodiuction is the WORLD PREMIER, Musical Comedy "COUPLED", playing JULY 18th through August 10th, 2014. For more information, visit

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