Playwright Greta Grosch chose her words carefully.
“We don’t have plans for any more,” she said when asked if “The Last (Potluck) Supper” is really the final installment of “Church Basement Ladies.”
“Don’t have plans?” Well, Cher didn’t “have plans” to run her Farewell Tour forever, either. And we know how that turned out.
Grosch insisted that she and producer Curt Wollan talked long ago about ending the popular musical franchise after five iterations. And in “The Last (Potluck) Supper,” which has its premiere Friday at Plymouth Playhouse, the basement denizens of East Cornucopia Lutheran come to terms with closing their country church. That sounds pretty final.
“We don’t want to get to the point where we have ‘The Church Basement Ladies Meet Frankenstein,’ ” Wollan said.
Oh, really? Hmm. Anyone have a contact number at Disney Entertainment?
“Church Basement Ladies,” which opened in 2005, has become Troupe America’s most successful series of shows. The original was written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen. Grosch wrote the scripts for CBL2, 3, 4 and now 5. Songwriter/arranger Dennis Curley also has made significant contributions.
The franchise has done impressive business. It has generated $9 million in sales, with about 1,900 performances in 248 cities in 33 states. That doesn’t include an 83-city tour set for January-May 2014 for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement,” the fourth installment. The original show has been the most popular, with three tours.
“I’m most proud that we’ve saved a lot of theaters with this show,” said Wollan.
That’s not hyperbole, said Denny Hitchcock, the owner/producer of Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island, Ill. A Minnesota native Lutheran and old friend of Wollan’s, Hitchcock has produced three of the shows — including the original twice. After booking the first production for nine weeks, he added 19 performances and it became the best bottom-line show since he founded Circa 21 in 1977.
“It was truly a godsend because we were really strapped,” Hitchcock said of his first production in 2007. “We needed to borrow money, and then we did ‘Church Basement Ladies’ and we didn’t have to.”
Hitchcock worried initially that the show would have only regional appeal — a concern he has heard from other producers, too. He now totally discounts the fear. All three versions Hitchcock has produced have ended up in Circa 21’s top-eight list of box-office sellers. It has also sold in Mesa, Ariz.; Palm Beach, Fla., and Erie, Pa.
“It is past the point of being only a show; it’s a phenomenon,” he said.
Between “Church Basement Ladies” and “Prairie Home Companion,” it might seem that cultural Lutheranism has become Minnesota’s No. 1 export.
People you know
The five characters of “Church Basement Ladies” have created that phenomenon. In the original, Stowell and Zuehlke used ruthless accuracy leavened with a generous measure of affection to create spot-on archetypes. From their cat-eye glasses, aprons and hair bobs to their thick-soled shoes, the women instantly evoked real people. Grosch’s scripts have benefited from the work she and her castmates have done on stage. That is, the actors essentially have been workshopping these characters for eight years. Grosch has sharply observed what audiences love about the ladies, and she has deepened their charm.
She knows her character, Mavis, will at one point crawl into the big freezer; Janet Paone’s Vivian will trudge in with Wonder Bread bags over her boots; Tim Drake’s Pastor Gunderson will become discombobulated and run out of the basement; and Karin (Dorian Chalmers) and Signe (Tara Bormann) will share a sweet mother-daughter coming-of-age moment. This familiarity breeds contentment and satisfaction.
“People fall in love with the characters, and you have to deliver those moments,” Grosch said.
In “The Last (Potluck) Supper,” Grosch injects time travel into the script. Set in the high-disco age of 1979, East Cornucopia Lutheran both celebrates its centennial and faces a financial crisis that could shut its doors. The story flashes back to key points in the church’s history, starting in 1879.
These things happen
Church closings were rare but not unheard of in the 1970s. New federal rules on access, for example, required significant physical modifications to buildings. Also, the late ’70s saw more youths moving away from rural towns and the growth of corporate farming — which tilled the same amount of land but with fewer farmers.
The trend has hastened today, though it’s more likely that an urban church will close. Grosch said a cousin’s experience with his church in northeast Minneapolis gave her details of how the congregation voted to close the church and move elsewhere.
“This stuff is important,” she said.
It seems a harsh end for such goodhearted characters. Wollan said he’ll miss them but, “It’s not like this is dead. We have enough shows to run for four or five more years.”
Composer Jansen is, frankly, ready to call it a day.
“I’m looking forward to the break, professionally,” he said.
And Grosch? She has worked alongside her castmates for eight years and written four shows for them and with them.
“If you act in a story about love, friendship, family — that has an impact,” she said. “When I do a bit with Janet, when I think of how Tara has grown up from a teenager in this show; you fall in love with those characters and the actors who are playing them.”
But rather than jump the shark, she and Wollan believe they have chosen the right path.
“We had a story to tell,” Grosch said. “And we don’t have anything left to say.”