Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Church Basement Ladies’ ‘Fortress’ continues formula


GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Church basement ladies Beverly, Vivian, Karin and Mavis, along with their Lutheran pastor, face changes in their lives. A highway is coming through. A girl is going through a rite of passage, which ripples through her mother. A stuffy widow laments the church’s new hymnals, which have red covers instead of her favored black. The widower pastor is getting married. These are important parts of the musical The Church Basement Ladies in “A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement,” which is playing today, Wednesday, through Thursday, March 26-27, at the Meyer Theatre in downtown Green Bay. Not much happens in the show – or has to. It’s an atmospheric piece about life in a time past in rural Minnesota as told through happenings in the lives of three women and a daughter who are keepers of culinary/faith/human traditions in the kitchen of a Lutheran church.

The show is corny, funny, sentimental, overwrought, touching, thoughtful, silly, playful, dopey, quaint, clever, sappy, knowing and a dozen other mixed things rolled into one.

The performers wear wireless microphones, so they move easily, especially in dance, and can be easily heard. They perform to a recorded soundtrack.

The play turns back the clock to October 1960 in clothing style, mores, manners, language and social situations.

“Women don’t write checks,” one character says. “That’s man’s work.”

An idea of President Dwight D. Eisenhower is happening – a vast highway network is being built. “Where do they think we want to go?” asks a stay-at-home fuddy-duddy Vivian Snustad. The new highway is cutting into the beloved farm of Mavis Gilmerson, who sings of her love of farming.

Characters in the show do things outside of reality, like break into production numbers using kitchen utensils. Despite the strong Lutheran threads that run through the show, there’s just one brief hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” All the songs, from a boogie woogie rouser to the novel “Vivian Snustad: Pickle Queen!” are original.

The performances are likable. The players have fun with their well-defined characters who are given fun or pithy things to say, like the teases on being Lutheran: “Don’t be ridiculous. We’re Lutheran. We don’t get crushes, we get married.”

Nothing seems to have happened in the show until the very end. The Pastor places a perspective. October 1960 – John F. Kennedy is about to be elected president of the United States. The play has taken the audience to a watershed time.

There is a bigger picture with the Church Basement Ladies, too. “Church Basement Ladies” is the name of the first play in a series that found popular appeal. I attended a well-attended performance on a Wednesday afternoon – another well-attended performance by a visiting theater company. The Church Basement Ladies thing is a regional, populist cultural phenomenon. As with “Late Night Catechism,” a series with roots in interest in Catholicism, the Church Basement Ladies series explores shared experiences in a rural, Upper Midwest life style. Both series strike chords with audiences because of their “from the people” aura. The shows are not the official church line, but not disrespectful, either.

The Church Basement Ladies series seems to thrive on its name alone. “A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement” (3 1/2 stars out of 5) is in keeping with the others I’ve seen, though the comedy especially builds on the Pastor’s wedding day. The event turns out to be a disaster, and the reception ends up taking place in another church basement – that of a Catholic parish. All sorts of delightful things happen.



Creative: Inspiration – books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson; playwright – Greta Grosch; music and lyrics – Drew Jansen; producer/director – Curt Wollan; costume design – Katrina Benedict; scenic and lighting design – Scott R. Herbst; music director and arranger – Dennis Curley; choreography and musical staging – Wendy Short Hays.

Cast (from Internet sources; no programs were handed out Wednesday – not a good thing): Jeff March – Pastor; Kay Francis - Mrs. Lars Snustad (Vivian); Nikki Savitt –  Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson (Mavis); Carrie SaLoutos - Mrs. Elroy Engelson (Karin); Kimberly Steffen – Beverly Signe Engelson. Understudies: Tara Borman – Beverly Signe Engelson; Dorian Chalmers – Mrs. Elroy Engelson (Karin) and Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson (Mavis); Tim Drake – Pastor; Janet Paone – Lars Snustad (Vivian).


The action takes place on Oct. 30, 1960 (Reformation Sunday), with flashbacks to spring, summer and fall 1960.


“Boogie Woogie Bulwark of a Basement,” All

“After I’m Confirmed,” Beverly, Vivian, Karin, Mavis

“The Ballad of Mrs. Elroy Engelson,” Pastor and Beverly with Vivian, Mavis, Karin

“Growing Up, Letting Go,” Karin, Beverly

“Born to Farm,” Mavis with Beverly, Karin, Pastor

“All Heaven Broke Loose,” Pastor with All


“An Absolutely Perfect Day,” Karin with All

“Vivian Snustad: Pickle Queen!” Vivian

“That’s Lutheran Love!” Vivian, Karin, Mavis

“All Heaven Broke Loose (Reprise),” Pastor


THE SERIES: There are five shows in the franchise, all of which opened at opened at the Plymouth Playhouse in Plymouth, Minn.: “Church Basement Ladies,” “Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping,” “Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas,” The Church Basement Ladies in “A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement” and The Church Basement Ladies in “The Last (Potluck) Supper.”

THE VENUE: Newcomers continue to admire the Robert T. Meyer Theatre, which came to renewed life Feb. 27, 2002, following extensive renovation to the building. The theater seats approximately 1,000. The building opened Feb. 14, 1930, as one of the palatial Fox movie houses. The theater’s interior aura was its saving grace toward the end of the 20th century, when the building was faced an uncertain fate. The architectural/decorative style is defined as Spanish Atmospheric. The auditorium is designed in the manner of a Moorish courtyard of old. The eclectic mix of architectural styles and colors carries throughout the lobbies. One of the Meyer Theatre’s remaining architectural cousins around the country is the Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts in Sheboygan. Other preserved Fox theaters are in Detroit and Atlanta.

THE PEOPLE: Robert Meyer was president and chief executive officer of Tape Inc. of Green Bay. The theater took his name at the behest of his wife, Betty (Janet Elizabeth) Rose Meyer, whose financial contribution at a crucial time helped revitalize the building. The Rose family has a history of deep commitment to and involvement in the well being of Green Bay. Robert Meyer died in 1984, Betty Rose Meyer in 2008.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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