Church Basement Ladies is Just the Right Amount of Church Potluck Fluff

By Andy Dillehay

Church Basement Ladies, Lied Center April 16, 2022 2PM

On a sunny April Saturday afternoon, the beautiful Lied Center was packed like the pews on Easter Sunday. From the moment you see the sea foam green walls of the church basement, you can almost smell the casseroles (or “hot dishes” as they’re known in the Lutheran church.) Adorned with antique appliances and other fixings from yesteryear, you are transported to a kitchen where recipes that end up in spiral bound cookbooks are born.  

Church Basement Ladies is a charming story that follows four women, a priest, and an unseen handyman named Willie, as they live through lutefisk dinners, receptions, and hot flashes. The delightful cast of five puts on a rolicking show, filled with laughs, music, and a Hawaiian Easter Bunny. The kitchen is overseen by the crotchety, but endearing, Mrs. Snustad, supremely played by Autumn O’Ryan. Also in the kitchen are mother and daughter duo, Karin and Signe Engelson, played by Dorian Chalmers and Tara Bormon, who have a darling chemistry. Rounding out the church basement ladies is the zany and scene stealing Mrs. Gilmerson, played by Jessica Bradish, with an energy that is reminiscent of a young Penny Marshall. At the helm of the church is the cordial and patient Pastor Gunderson, played by Tim Drake.

Set in a small country Minnesotan church, the script was definitely written with its Minnesota audience in mind. Filled with “uff das” and viking references, audiences from outside the Land of 10,000 Lakes will still find it enchanting. The show opens on a frigid December day in 1964 as the ladies are getting ready to put on a lutefisk dinner with a record-setting turnout. Kicking off the show is a cheeky musical number, “Closer to Heaven (In the Church Basement).” As the teenage Signe learns the traditions of Lutheran church recipes, the gals school her in the hilarious “Pale Food Polka.” The recipe-passing choreography was a stitch and had the audience roaring. Throughout the first scene, we hear the handyman, Willie, clamoring away at the old heater to keep the congregation toasty. While we never see him, the ladies speak fondly of him and all that he does for the church.

The second scene takes us to February, 1965. Pastor Gunderson sits as he attempts to write a eulogy, finding it more difficult than usual. He’s preparing for Willie’s funeral. Pastor Gunderson and the church ladies sing a touching tribute with “Song for Willie.” After this somber moment, Mrs. Gilmerson experiences a severe (and hilarious) hot flash in the latin-inspired number, “My Own Personal Island.” Jessica Bradish’s physical comedy was astounding. From lifting her dress up to cool off in front of the refrigerator to climbing into the deep freeze, she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. While she was burning up, the rest of the church was freezing. Willie was the only one to keep up on the heater. Mrs. Gilmerson unsuccessfully attempts to fix it, but finds a wood burning stove in the process. Miraculously, there was a pile of wood in a corner to light a fire. We learn from Pastor Gunderson that Willie had been saving scrap wood in case it was ever needed. A tender moment to close out the first act.

Act II so perfectly starts during the Easter season of 1965. The church is hosting a hula-themed fundraiser, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Snustad. She believes the church is changing too much, moving away from tradition. After sharing a sweet moment with Mrs. Engelson, Mrs. Snustad passes the towel, relinquishing her reign of the kitchen. In hula skirts, coconut bras, and leis, the church ladies prepare to feed the masses when they learn their “Easter Bunny” won’t be coming. Hilarity ensues as Pastor Gunderson is wrangled in to dress up as a Hawaiian Easter Bunny in the number, “Sing a New Song,” complete with a bunny hop. 

In the final scene, we find ourselves on a hot July day in 1968. It’s Signe’s wedding day. An emotional Mrs. Engelson is supported by her confidantes, Mrs. Snustad and Mrs. Gilmerson, when Pastor Gunderson announces Signe is missing. After Mrs. Engelson and Mrs. Gilmerson go to find her, a disheveled Signe appears in the church basement. With mascara running down her cheeks, Signe is comforted by Mrs. Snustad. They shared a beautiful duet, “For Good,” before Signe’s mother and Mrs. Gilmerson returned. In true church lady fashion, the women get Signe cleaned up and ready with a little bit of Crisco, some beet juice, and a touch of flour before the reprise of “Sing a New Song,” to close out the show.

With a run time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, the quippy dialogue and sweet songs keep the story moving at a smooth pace. Erica Zaffarano’s excellent scenic and prop design created a perfect atmosphere for these characters to exist. Costumer Trina Benedict stayed true to the era, allowing the actors to lose themselves in the 1960s. Scott R. Herbst’s lighting design found a nice balance between the dialogue and musical numbers. 
If you missed this limited engagement run of Church Basement Ladies, it will most likely not be its last in Lincoln. This was its second appearance in the Capital City and the show was very well received. With seven sequels, there are plenty of opportunities for you to travel to the church basement and enjoy the company of Mrs. Snustad, Mrs. Gilmerson, Signe and Mrs. Engelson, and Pastor Gunderson.

Church Basement Ladies ran on April 16 at 2PM and 7:30PM

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