Curtain Call: Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas
What: Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas (live musical theater)
NOTE: The original version of this story incorrectly gave the name of a cast member as Vikki Savage. Her actual name is Nikki Savitt. Her name is corrected in the version of the story that follows.
The calendar has flipped over to December, and by now most people's minds and hearts are turning to the celebration of the holiday season. And the holiday spirit will come alive with liturgical laughter when the Church Basement Ladies perform Away in the Basement Saturday, December 11, with performances at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Shryock Auditorium.
By popular demand (and possibly divine intervention), the Church Basement Ladies, who last year wowed Shryock and Marion Cultural and Civic Center audiences in a series of sold-out performances, will return to Southern Illinois with a lot food (of course), a load of fun, some holy hilarity, and a cornucopia of holiday spirit.
Everyone who attends church (or has ever attended church) knows this special group of ladies; that small, close-knit group of steel magnolias who may run a tight ship (or kitchen), but also know how to let their hair down and have a little fun, without compromising faith, values, or the reputation of their beloved pastor. Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas, the newest production in the franchise that brought forth the long-running musical comedy Church Basement Ladies and its sequel, Church Basement Ladies II: A Second Helping, takes audiences back to the basement of a Lutheran church basement in that tiny little town on the frozen plains of midwinter Minnesota.
It is Christmas of 1959, and the ladies of Sunday have once again assembled and donned their aprons in preparation of the biggest church event of the year, the annual Christmas pageant. As children rehearse in the upstairs sanctuary, the ladies gather round to share memories of holidays gone by as they assemble treat bags and mend old costumes. In many ways, it is just like any other Christmas, but there is a hint that times are changing, because between the snowflakes there blows just a hint of love in the air.
Mrs. Vivian Snustad, Mrs. Mavis Gilmerson, and Mrs. Karin Engleson and her daughter Signe, are all shocked that their long-widowed pastor, Reverend E.L. Gunderson, has recently began keeping company with a new lady after years of grieving. The good-natured gossip about the scandal unfolds among the group, combined with the church politics of just whom-is-going-to-play-whom in the upcoming Christmas production, for the sounds coming from upstairs are not those of sleeping in Heavenly peace. Soon the ladies realize it is once again up to them to step in and save the day if that holiest of holidays is to come off without a hitch.
Featuring a score by Drew Jansen, who provided the music and lyrics for the first two Church Basement Ladies productions, the book for Away in the Basement is written by Greta Gosch, who authored the script for A Second Helping.
Nikki Savitt, who portrays Mavis, assures Nightlife readers that anyone who ventures out to Shryock on December 11 will receive a holiday treat that could never fit in any stocking.
"The audiences who have supported and loved the Church Basement Ladies all these years are definitely going to love this, not only because it's centered completely around the holidays, but interestingly enough, it goes back in time," Savitt says. "Those who remember the storyline about the scandal over the pastor and his new wife will get a treat, because in this show you get to go back a few years to the time when he meets this lady who becomes the new wife. You find out all about how their romance blossoms and eventually Vivian, the matriarch of the ladies, realizes that the pastor has to move on with his life, too. And people who remember Signe, the daughter, will get to see her at fifteen years old. So this show takes the characters back about three years from the original show. It's a Christmas-time prequel."
While the previous Shryock production of Church Basement Ladies featured Emmy Award-winner and television legend William Christopher as Reverend Gunderson, in Away in the Basement the pastor's robe and collar will be worn by David Simmons. He lends a different flavor to the show, adding a hint of poignancy in the midst of the laughter, as the widowed pastor Gunderson begins to let go of his grief and look for a second chance of love.
"There is a song that the pastor sings," Savitt says, "and he sings it to his late wife, this song about the new woman that he's met. The song is called 'I Think You'd Like Her.' We girls in the cast have heard David sing it several times, and we're just blubbering messes. It's one of the most poignant, beautiful moments, and one of the most beautiful songs. They'll just need to pass tissue out to the audience. There is some bitter sweetness to the show, with everyone, including the pastor, realizing that he's got to move on, and that it's okay for him to find another soulmate. In the song, he literally asks his wife's spirit's permission. It's beautiful."
With the original Church Basement Ladies act, a successful sequel, and now a holiday show, one might wonder why these four church ladies and their sweet and bumbling pastor keep audiences of all denominations and faiths packing into auditoriums night after night. Savitt says that she believes it is because these ladies are not fictional-- only their names have been changed.
"When we do receiving lines after a show, people always say to me, 'Wow! I recognize every one of you,'" Savitt says. "Anyone who grew up in church or has attended church as an adult knows these ladies. Our director always says to us, 'Bring them to life, but never make them cartoon characters.' These roles are dream roles for performers."
Savitt says the recipe that makes Away in the Basement the perfect holiday treat is as simple as something ladies would whip up in the kitchen.
"If you love the Church Basement Ladies and you love the holiday season, what could possibly be more fun than watching the Church Basement Ladies get ready for the holidays?" Savitt says. "That's what the whole story is-- the ladies trying to perform the simple task of trying to get the kids' Sunday school Christmas program together. And, of course, all sorts of chaos erupts. It's delightful."
Tickets range from $24 to $49, with $15 discounts for Star Club members. For tickets, visit <http://SouthernTicketsOnline.com>, call (618) 453-6000, or stop by ticket outlets weekdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or one hour before performances. There are no service charges for in-person purchases, though phone and online purchases will carry service charges.
For more information, including about the Star Club, visit <http://www.SouthernLightsEntertainment.com>.
who: Southern Lights Entertainment
what: Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas (live musical theater)
where: Shryock Auditorium
when: Saturday, December 11