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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Church Basement Ladies
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of John


Tim Shawver, Carolyn McPhee, Kat Bailes,
Ali Whitwell, and Barbara McBain

Photo by Kat Barnes / Arizona Broadway Theatre
In every company or organization there is usually one place that represents its heart or life center. In the musical Church Basement Ladies that heart is the basement of a Lutheran church where a group of ladies prepare meals for church functions. These women may gossip and comment on the events going on upstairs but their dedication to their church never falters. Arizona Broadway Theatre serves up a solid production of this charming musical that is filled with a huge helping of heart.

Inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, the musical is set during the mid-1960s and takes place completely in the underground level of a rural Minnesota church as the women get ready for holidays and events both happy and sad. With the occasions ranging from Christmas to a funeral, and with the four women representing various archetypes, the musical has a universality that makes not only the women identifiable as those you've probably met throughout your life, but the preparations that take place during those events recognizable as well. The show also focuses on various changes in life, specifically the traditional views verses modern changes and updates that churches face. So there are many things that resonate.

Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke's book is full of charm and includes bits of humor as well as cultural references specific to the Minnesota setting, though some of the regionally, specific jokes might go over audiences' heads, and the material is a little thin for a two act musical. Also, Drew Jansen's score, which has some fun rhyme schemes, isn't that memorable but it does include a wide range of songs including some rousing group numbers and a few touching ballads.

Rob Watson's clear direction and fun choreography elevate the material. His talented cast create distinct personalities, and his upbeat choreography is varied and incorporates various kitchen items and other props into the movement and actions in humorous ways. His staging makes good use of the large ABT space and utilizes Aaron Sheckler's authentic 1960s set, complete with multiple doors and even a set of outside steps that come down into the cellar set dwelling, in fun ways.

The show is a true ensemble piece with each person creating a likable character. Barbara McBain does well in making Vivian, the prejudiced and judgmental elder leader of the group, believable and human. She embodies this crotchety and controlling widow with resilience and makes us understand her convictions in believing that what she's doing is right for the church. McBain effectively makes the changes that her characters makes over the course of the show believable, with the delivery of her barbs and criticism softening a bit throughout. Kat Bailes is an absolute hoot as Mavis, the handy and good-hearted farmer's wife. Mavis is menopausal and Bailes get the most humor in the piece as she attempts to cool her character's hot flashes in any way possible. Bailes' ease with physical humor adds pops of hilarity throughout.

Carolyn McPhee as Karin and Ali Whitwell as Karin's daughter Signe create sympathetic characters who are both dealing with issues of their own. In Karin's case it's not being able to live down the fact that she changed her mind at the last minute at her first wedding and now wonders if her daughter will follow in her footsteps. For Signe, it's both choosing the right man to marry and dealing with being mocked for going away to college in what the other characters harshly call "the cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Signe is also the character that speaks most about the changes that the church is making and Whitwell is compassionate and empathetic when trying to get the people around her to understand that these change are good.

All four women give strong performances of these strong women and have beautiful voices that excel on their songs.

Tim Shawver is quite good as Pastor Gunderson. His character has the most moving moment of the show when he is preparing the eulogy for Willie, the church janitor, and Shawver does a lovely job with this solo moment and song and in giving some depth to his character.

On top of this production's gifted cast, the clear direction, and the warmth and charm of the show, ABT's dinner theatre concept, with their always exceptional food, adds a special element and connection to the musical, since the show is all about the food the ladies are preparing for these church events. Full of old-fashioned Minnesota charm, Church Basement Ladies may be a slight show but it is a warmhearted musical and, while the characters may not be that deep and the outcome may be predictable, it does portray a realistic setting and results in a delightful musical.

Church Basement Ladies runs through October 2nd, 2016, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.

Inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson
Written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke
Music and Lyrics by Drew Jansen
Stage Direction and Choreography: Rob Watson
Music Direction: Lizzie Hatfield
Set Design: Aaron Sheckler
Costume Coordinator: Isaac Varela
Sound Design: Joshua Tobin
Lighting Design: Bret Reese
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Cast:
Barbara McBain: Vivian
Kat Bailes: Mavis
Carolyn McPhee: Karin
Ali Whitwell: Signe
Tim Shawver: Pastor Gunderson


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