By Connie Bollinger
In between its very funny, recognizable exchanges are heartfelt and sentimental moments that will result in eyes glistening and memories evoked in “Away in a Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas.”
A talented cast brings warmth and cheer to this musical comedy at the Playhouse at Westport through the Christmas season. You don’t need to be Lutheran or of Scandinavian heritage to enjoy, for its themes are universal.
It’s Christmas Eve 1959 in rural Minnesota, and the Church Basement Ladies are fully engaged in last minute preparations for the annual Christmas Eve Children’s Program. There are cookies to pack for the shut-ins, decorations to hang, goodie bags to load, and a reluctant “Mary” to assuage.
In between small crises like wandering sheep and rowdy children, we meet Beverly, Vivian, Karin, Mavis and the Pastor who share broken cookies and recollections of last year’s disastrous program. Vivian leads them in a lively re-telling of “The Unforgettable Christmas Program of 1958.”
Beverly (Hollyn Gayle) is 15 and has determined she’s too old to portray Mary and will not wear the Mary costume, even though it’s made from a Dan River’s Percale Sheet. Beverly is a Heritage Church Basement Lady and is learning the ropes from her mother, Karin (Lee Anne Mathews), Handywoman Mavis (Rosemary Watts), and “Queen” Vivian (Peggy Billo).
Billow, as Vivian, is the absolute self-appointed ruler of the Church Basement and the Keeper of Tradition and Morals. She’s disturbed about the newly Synod–endorsed red hymnals they’ve been told to use. She’s also very disapproving of Pastor’s interest in a new woman. “His wife’s only been gone two years!”
Watts, as Mavis, is every Midwestern farm wife you’ve ever met. She’s a “no-nonsense” hard working woman who is more comfortable in a tool belt than an apron. Her parody of “Queen for a Day” is wonderfully rich and funny, and her rendition of “Just Not Mary Material” is a joy.
Mathews’ Karin made me think of “Leave It to Beaver” mom June Cleaver with her full skirts, perfect hair and the little strand of pearls around her neck. Karin is warm and very understanding of her daughter’s tantrums and eye-rolling. She shines in the song, “Everybody is a Kid Again at Christmastime.”
Michael Jokerst as the Pastor is delightfully nerdy and poignant. He’s grieving for his departed wife and yet he’s feeling it may be time to move on. In the song, “I Think You Would Like Her”, he shares his loneliness and conflict with us. His gentle tenor voice got to my heart.
Having spent some hours assisting Lutheran ladies in my home church, I can tell you the attention to detail on the set was astounding, from the carefully labeled drawers and cupboards to the pink- and-white tile floor to the red and chrome step stools. Everything is authentic and comfortable.
But for me, the very best part was the ensemble singing “Jeg er sa glad” in Norwegian and then in English. “I Am So Glad”(When Christmas Comes)? in four part harmony so clear, so perfect I got all nostalgic and teary.
This musical, one of the five “Church Basement Ladies” sequels, was produced in 2009, with book by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen. The first one, presented in Minnesota in 2005, is based on the book “Growing Up Lutheran,” and all are a ‘scrapbook’ of memories from the 1950s.
This presentation, with music director Joe Dreyer’s fine guidance and co-direction by Lee Anne Mathews (also Karin) and Emily Clinger, is certain to get you into the holiday spirit.
“Away in the Basement A Christmas Musical Comedy” is at the Playhouse at Westport starting Nov. 8 until January 6, 2019. For more information, visit the website, www.playhouseatwestport.com. For tickets, visit or call MetroTix.com, 314-534-1111.
Performances are Sundays and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 2 p.m., Saturdays and Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. There is no Thanksgiving Day performance. Additionally, tickets will be available at the Playhouse @ Westport Plaza box office one hour prior to show time. Groups of 10 or more can call 314-616-4455 for special rates.