‘Away in the Basement - A Church Basement Ladies Christmas’ warms up cold winter nights with nostalgic traditions
The charming and funny ladies who run the kitchen at a Lutheran church in Minnesota are back for another visit with St. Louis audiences. “Away in the Basement - A Church Basement Ladies Christmas” is a sweetly nostalgic look at holiday traditions and life in rural America.
The comic musical features new but familiar sounding songs, plenty of Minnesota nice snark and more than a touch of human pathos to keep the story as relatable as it is funny. The ladies of the kitchen share stories, traditions and songs as they busy themselves with all the familiar rituals of holiday preparations. Tins of cookies are shared as freely as memories and opinions while the woman gossip, cook, and help the students prepare for the annual Christmas pageant.
The genial Reverend Gunderson welcomes us to the kitchen, introducing the ladies as each makes her entrance on a Saturday just before Christmas in 1959. Busy super mom Karin bustles in with daughter Beverly, quickly followed by the bundle of energy, enthusiasm and clumsiness that is Mavis and the indomitable spirit of Kitchen matriarch Mrs. Vivian Snustad. Egg coffee and hot cocoa are cooking on the stove and decorations and costumes are being unpacked and readied for the show, including airing out the smell of the recent lutefisk supper, as the women chatter and sing.
Ensemble members Peggy Billo, Michael Jokerst, Lee Anne Matthews and Rosemary Watts are welcome and familiar faces to Playhouse audiences and the seasoned veterans bring genuine warmth and a familiar, comfortable camaraderie to their roles. Hollyn Gayle adds a bright, youthful voice to the ensemble and avoids cutesy in a nonetheless spot on throwback characterization of an excitable, petulant, and rebellious 15-year-old girl. With reliable voices that harmonize well, the chummy ensemble delivers catchy, whimsical tunes with a layered 1950’s style and swinging melodies. Light choreography and a playful attitude powered by nostalgia add to the entertainment.
The perspective here is mid-century, middle American bland, self-reliant and a little suspicious of anything new-fangled, but it isn’t offensively stereotyped. In an odd way, the musical is reminiscent of both early sitcoms and made-for-television holiday movies, though all of the romance is off stage and only gleefully whispered and teased about by the ladies. The show isn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s funny and entertaining and warm in the same way as the movies we share and laugh over with our families and friends this time of year.
The stories in “Away in the Basement - A Church Basement Ladies Christmas,” continuing at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza through January 6, are comic, with universal truths and little lessons liberally sprinkled in and songs like “Everybody is a Kid Again at Christmastime” and “Reindeer Rendezvous” are memorable, catchy tunes. The result is a cheerful and tenderhearted look at a traditional northern European influenced, North American Christmas that’s a delightful diversion for audiences of all ages.