In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

The Church Basement Ladies are, from left, Rhonda Rae Busch, Beth Mulkerron, Jenny Wanasek and Kay Stiefel. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

"Church Basement Ladies" move into the Marcus Center

It seems only fair.

Catholics have had their quirks and foibles affectionately spoofed in stage shows for decades. "Nunsense" and "Late Nite Catechism" roll on and on in seemingly endless sequels. And we must not forget "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" and "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?"

Wisconsin has also received plenty of theatrical attention with "Guys on Ice," "Cheeseheads, the Musical" and "Packer Fans from Outer Space," among others. So it is only fitting that a musical about Minnesota Lutherans is sneaking into town for an engagement at the Marcus Center.

"Church Basement Ladies" opens Friday in Vogel Hall for a run through Aug. 7. The show premiered in a Minneapolis suburb in 2006 and played for two years. Multiple national touring companies of the hit have criss-crossed the country, exposing thousands to the Minnesota way of being Lutheran. Now it is our turn, with a local cast.

The musical has its roots in a popular humor book, "Growing Up Lutheran: What Does This Mean?" Authors Janet Martin and Suzann J. Nelson used memories from their upbringings and stories from others to craft a nostalgic piece focused on the 1940s through the '60s.

Confirmation, Bible camp and pew protocol are among the subjects covered. Call it a cultural guide to being Lutheran in the upper Midwest.

The book seemed ripe for theatricalization, and married couple Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke were commissioned to pen a script. Drew Jansen, who wrote the score for the popular "How to Talk Minnesotan, The Musical," signed on as composer.

Stowell is a veteran Minneapolis story teller and actor, but he was born in Texas and raised Baptist. Zuehlke assured me during a phone chat that her husband was highly qualified to co-write the musical's book.

"He has been married to me for 35 years, and I'm the daughter of a church basement lady." Zuehlke is also an actress and theater educator.

"Growing Up Lutheran" was a compilation of material, with no characters or plot. Stowell and Zuehlke created four church ladies and a minister, and they structured scenes around major events in a Lutheran congregation -- a steaming-hot summer wedding, a jam-packed Christmas dinner, an Easter fundraiser and the funeral of a beloved friend.

"We aimed for the show to be a combination of Garrison Keillor and Ethel and Lucy. We also went for moments that are real deep and human," Zuehlke explained. "The show hit a nerve. It came at the right time."

Gardening, canning, sewing aprons and remembering your old pastor are in the mix. So are recipes. Zuehlke has written a "Church Basement Ladies" cookbook that is sold at performances.

Those of us who are neither Lutheran nor Minnesotan need not worry that we will be clueless at a "CBL" performance, according to the writer. "We will take good care of you," she promised.

"It's about how women solve problems in life and in the church. It strikes a universal chord in all of us. It is very human."

The Marcus Center's church ladies are all established Milwaukee actors -- Kay Stiefel, Jenny Wanasek, Beth Mulkerron and Rhonda Rae Busch. Norman Moses plays the pastor.


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