It seems that audiences can’t get enough of the Church Basement Ladies.
“Church Basement Ladies: A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement,” the fourth installment of the charming series, comes to the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin for two performances at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23.
All four installments of The Church Basement Ladies are inspired by books by Janet Martin and Suzann Nelson. The family-friendly script is from sketch comedy writer and actress Greta Grosch, with music by composer Drew Jansen.
“A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement” takes places in 1960, where a reformation is underway. Beverly, the youngest of the bunch, is growing up. Mrs. Snustad, the matriarch of the kitchen, wins top honors at the County Fair for her pickles. Farm wife Mavis has to find a way to deal with the new superhighway which cuts through her farm. Karin, the homemaker, must reconcile with a new world. And Pastor has found love and is getting married.
Grosch, who lives in Minneapolis, originated the role of Mavis and has written the last four installments.
“All of the Church Basement Ladies musicals — there have now been five of them — have been inspired by these two real-life women who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in rural Minnesota as these Lutheran farm girls,” she said. “They tried to write scripts themselves, but they are not necessarily theater people. So professional playwrights partnered with them to help adapt their lives and work into these musicals. I have been lucky enough to write the last four. I did not write the first one, but I was involved as a cast member.”
Grosch believes the shows have struck such a chord with audiences because of the honesty and real-life characters each show brings to the table.
“We’re not inventing anything. We’re not writing about aliens on Mars,” she said. “These are our ancestors.”
The shows have played — and played well — all over the country, not just in the upper Midwest.
“It’s really amazing how well the show speaks to such a wide variety of people,” she said.
In addition to touring productions, the stories are performed by regional theaters as well.
“They’re really popular at dinner theaters,” she said. “A couple years ago, there was a report from the National Dinner Theater Association that the ‘Church Basement Ladies’ are the No. 1 grossing show amongst national dinner theaters.”
The premise is a simple story about five Lutheran ladies in the basement of a church. One reason these shows are so popular for theaters to perform is because it’s a single-unit set and the same characters are in each installment.
“There are actors and actresses all across the country that make a living being in the ‘Church Basement Ladies.’ Within that, knowing we have the same set and the same five characters, we do jump around in time,” she said.
The fifth and most current show, “The Last Potluck Supper,” spans time from 1897 to 1979, she said. The shows start their runs in the Twin Cities, and Grosch has been a part of the original cast of all five. She’s committed to the current show through the end of February.
“Each of the shows has the same characters and the same kitchen, but we tell different parts of the story,” she said. “There’s one character, throughout the course of the five shows, who is seen as an infant and as a mother of four children of her own. So people fall in love with these characters and they want to hear more about their story.”
As of now, there are no plans for a sixth installment.
“This is the end,” she said. “But that’s what a lot of people say before they have their third child. So who knows … but right now we don’t plan on writing any more (shows).”
Grosch promises that you don’t need to have seen the other three shows to see “A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement.”
“With each show, we make sure that they stand on their own and you do not need any prior knowledge. And in the first five minutes, you understand who these characters are and what their relationship is, and you feel like you’re caught up,” she said.
There are plenty of references to world events of the time sprinkled throughout the shows.
Fans love the characters, she said, and the details they recognize from their own lives.
“There is one character who, whenever it is rainy or snowy, wears Wonder Bread bags on her feet,” she said. “So people will comment on that — ‘My mom made me wear Wonder Bread bags.’ People will share with us their stories. What they saw on stage inspires them to share something from their lives. That’s the coolest thing about this show. People are excited to tell us their stories. In that sense, I feel we’ve done a great service to all of our ancestors, because it makes people remember where they came from.”
The show is appropriate for men, women and children of all ages, she said.
“This is an opportunity to come and fall in love with the ‘Church Basement Ladies’ and see what all the fuss is about.”
“A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement” will also play at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet on Feb. 9. See rialtosquare.com for information.