Last summer, I took advantage of time alone in a friend's lovely Seattle home to curl up and read several books from his home library, including Jennifer Michael Hecht's The Happiness Myth. It looks at how modern life stresses and drains us and identifies five tried-and-true historic aspects of human behavior that contribute to joy and contentment. One is "celebration." Unsavory as it may sometimes sound, we need to get together regularly with other members of our community and have a really large party based on something we all value.
I was reminded of this while watching Church Basement Ladies, a somewhat lightweight popular new musical comedy that's stopping in Mesa right now on its national tour. You don't have to be a small-town Scandinavian Lutheran at the annual Christmas lutefisk supper in Cornucopia, Minnesota, to get the benefits of celebration, but it does make it more inevitable.
The strongest overall impression one takes away from this show (unless, I'd assume, you are a small-town Scandinavian Lutheran) is that it's almost exactly like Steel Magnolias moved to Minnesota, with some tragedy subtracted and some clever songs tossed in. But there's nothing wrong with that. And there's nothing wrong with the fact that the hook of the title tune, still running through my head, makes me think of "Santa Baby."
Drew Jansen's songs really are quite good, especially compared to those in similar plays that have sprung, like this one, from nonfiction humor writing, or from, say, a comic strip or a recent film. Jansen, whose resume includes a stint writing for Mystery Science Theater 3000, composes numbers that sound like actual musical theater. One lyric rhymes "hapless" with "Minneapolis," and there are more and better examples, but I don't like to pull out a pad and write stuff down while I'm trying to enjoy a play on you folks' behalf.
Jared Paul Grohs has designed a nifty set that, although cozy-looking, leaves space for the four leading ladies and their pastor (played by -- star alert! -- Father Mulcahy from the TV version of M*A*S*H, William Christopher) to bustle around the double stove and chest freezer and even work with levels in dances that meander up metal Cosco stepstools and across a rough-hewn work island. The slices of basement windows that are visible at the ceiling, along with the view out the pass-through window of murals for different seasons of the liturgical year, subtly show the passage of time from scene to scene.
Church Basement Ladies is obviously tailor-made for Midwesterners who've relocated or are visiting here (though I think it's fun for everyone), and it's full of bittersweet 1960s nostalgia and lovely details about things that were really important, like knowing seven pickle recipes and being sure to change from cooking apron to serving apron, and things that were very new to us then, like the world-opening wonders of a university education, interfaith romance, exotic ethnic foods like lasagna, and the alluring temptations of bustling metropolises like the Twin Cities. This is most certainly true!
Church Basement Ladies runs through Sunday, November 22, in the Piper Repertory Theater at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street. Tickets are $40; order here or call 480-644-6500.
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