Tim Drake wanted to tell the Tara Borman story.
Borman had joined the cast of “Church Basement Ladies” five months after the show opened in 2005, and Drake was kidding the 19-year-old actor at a post-performance bar gathering about how special it would be in two years when she could have a legal drink with her four other castmates.
Borman, cringing and listening to Drake tell the story, delivered the punch line herself during a recent interview. “I said that if I’m still doing this show when I’m 21, I’m going to kill myself.”
Ten years later, the story still gets a laugh and Borman is patting emollients on her cheeks so she can play the winsome Lutheran teen Signe Engelson in a remount of “Church Basement Ladies” that opens Thursday at Plymouth Playhouse.
This is the original show — the one that spun off four sequels, earned Troupe America at least $35 million in ticket sales, saved theaters from bankruptcy, launched 10 tours, totaled audiences in the millions, will open four productions this summer, has kept a stable of actors employed for 10 years, yada, yada, yada. No need to say, it is Troupe America’s most popular franchise.
In the beginning
The original was written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke, with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen. It was based on the book “Growing Up Lutheran,” by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson.
Greta Grosch, Janet Paone, Dorian Chalmers, Tim Drake and Ruthie Baker were in the cast, directed by Curt Wollan. It premiered in September 2005 at the Plymouth Playhouse.
Grosch has written all the sequels, with music and lyrics by Jansen and Dennis Curley. The original, which has not been produced locally since the opening engagement, is the most licensed of the franchise.
Borman took over when Baker left the cast (you can still hear her voice on the original soundtrack) to pursue work in New York. She was perfect as a Luther Leaguer helping out her mom in the kitchen. Chalmers played that mom — Karin Engelson. Grosch played Mavis and Paone was Vivian Snustad — the dueling doyennes of the basement kitchen — and Drake was the Rev. E.L. Gunderson.
They have all played their characters thousands of times in sit-down productions and tours. They open this remount of the original show with the benefit of 10 years of history.
“When Jim and Jessica wrote, they were telling a story, with four distinct scenes and these characters responding,” Grosch said. “The story was there, but we didn’t know who these characters were yet.
“Now we come back with all that experience.”
It’s all about character
Grosch makes a good point. As the sequels continued into the third and fourth iterations, it became was less important what the church basement ladies were doing. What mattered was that they were on stage again.
The actors also return as the physical embodiments of these characters. So convincing is Drake’s appearance in a Lutheran collar that he was approached by a man in a parking lot near the theater several years ago. Would Drake pray with the man, who had just lost his job? The faux clergyman explained that he was an actor and that his prayers would do about as much good as shouting down an empty well.
“But I did wish him good luck,” Drake said.
He and Chalmers have done more shows than any other two actors at Troupe America.
Grosch and Paone direct and act in other places. Paone couldn’t be at an interview because she was directing a “Church Basement Ladies” production in Fort Myers, Fla. Grosch was featured in “Steel Magnolias” last year at Old Log.
Borman has worked with Seventh House and Yellow Tree, two companies that are part of the group of exciting twenty-something artists who are reinvigorating the Twin Cities theater scene.
Chalmers is a singer first, actor second, so when the chance arose to play the role — Karin sings lead — she took it. She breaks the fourth wall easily and loves to interact with the crowd.
“I’m an entertainer,” she said. “I’m glad to make people happy.”
A genuine sincerity
Wollan, the producer and director who put this enterprise on its feet 10 years ago and is directing this remount, understands that the wealth of this show is in its heart.
“It rings true,” he said. “We’re not crazy. We know it’s not the most incredible show in the world, but it has connected with an audience. People love stories about themselves.”
When he looks at this show from 10 years later, Wollan said, he shortened the script a little and tried a few things, but “it’s still the same thing.”
Except that his teenage girl is 10 years older. Everyone from 25 to about 60 is the same age, really. But teenagers change. Borman stays out of the sun to keep her skin looking fresh, and she is fortunate enough to have the kind of face that will let her play younger for years.
And she has made her peace with staying with this franchise. After all, an actor never assumes fortune, and work is work.
“As Curt said, ‘Ride the gravy train while it’s running,’ ” Grosch said.
Mmm, gravy. With mashed potatoes. Reminds me of someplace.