ACT dishes up some laughs

Almost every church has them a dedicated group of women who with spatula firmly in hand take charge of the potlucks, funeral spreads and celebratory dinners routinely dished up in a church basement kitchen.

This culinary tradition is what Alpena Civic Theatre celebrates with its amusing new musical, “Church Basement Ladies.” Starring the comical foursome of Donna Roussin, Carol Rundell, Kathy Klimek and Amanda Hulsey, plus funny man David Usher, it’s pretty much a lock that audiences will find a huge helping of material to laugh about.

Written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, this quasi-Lutheran version of “Nunsense” takes place in a Lutheran church in rural Minnesota where Usher, as Pastor Gunderson, must shepherd his congregation through the seismic cultural changes of the 1960s while dealing with four distinct personalities that rule their kitchen domain.

The set definitely says old-fashioned church basement kitchen with its pale green walls and vintage appliances. Props mistress Judy Beyer did an outstanding job rounding up the appropriate casserole dishes, roasters, coffee pots and many other accouterments that evoke the setting.

Split into two acts, “Church Basement Ladies” finds the women confronting all sorts of problems as they organize the food first for a record-breaking Christmas dinner, then the funeral of a dear friend, an Hawaiian-themed Easter fundraiser and the steaming hot July wedding of one of their own.

Roussin was given a gift when asked to play Mavis, the good-humored middle-aged maven who knows everything about everyone in town. It’s a perfect role for her. One moment it has her belting out a silly song about menopause (“My Own Personal Island”) and the next moment jauntily wielding a knife while conversing with her pastor.

Klimek plays Vivian, the crotchety matriarch of the kitchen. Steeped in tradition, she’s none too happy about the changes seeping into the church and takes every opportunity to let the others know about it. “Communists” she cries out when bemoaning the switch from black hymnals to red ones. “The Cities” she sputters angrily when talking and singing about the heathenism of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Rundell appears as Karin, the heir apparent to the kitchen throne. Once a wayward rebel who was a no-show on her wedding day, she is now back in the fold of East Cornucopia Lutheran Church. She’s also the mother of the youngest member of the kitchen crew, her daughter Signe, played by Hulsey.

Hulsey’s character, God forbid, dares to go off to college in the big city and to date outside of the accepted Lutheran circle. She’s got a bit of sass to her, while at the same time possessing a kind heart perfectly willing to embrace her church and her rural roots for one so young.

It is Signe’s wedding that the ladies gather to prepare for, but will she too be a no show at the altar? Will she marry the acceptable Lutheran boy who’s headed off to the service or Harry, the guy she keeps mentioning from a couple of her college classes? And what exactly is Signe doing in the church basement freezer? Don’t worry. There’s no spoiler here. Theatre goers will just have to come and see for themselves.

In between the four different occasions highlighted in “Church Basement Ladies,” topnotch music director and accompanist Bunny Lyon regales the audience with fun facts and figures about what was going on across the country back in the 1960s time frame in which the show is placed.

Costumer Marilyn Kettler provided some added visual appeal with the aprons, dowdy dresses and sensible shoes one would expect the four women to wear. And with a little sprightly choreography and a bunch of clever lyrics by lyricist Drew Jansen, who wouldn’t want to laugh at a song that extols the the virtues of bland food in “The Pale Face Polka.”

There are a couple a serious moments too, namely when Usher does a moving tune about writing the eulogy for his church janitor friend in “Song for Willie.” On the whole, however, it’s about the humor thanks to the five talented performers and the great job of Director Julie Meyers and Assistant Director Scott Edgar.

Performances of “Church Basement Ladies” are Oct. 10-13 and Oct. 17-20 with show times at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call the box office at 354-3624.