Heading into its sixth installment, the familiar “Church Basement Ladies” formula needed a shake-up. After all, when your musical comedy series about the close-knit kitchen community in a small-town Minnesota Lutheran church approaches the “Fast and Furious” or “Friday the 13th” level of sequels, something fresh is needed.
“Rise Up, O Men” does that with a simple twist. Rather than veering from the familiar material, the show adds to the texture by letting long-standing characters interact with fresh faces: the men of the community.
So, the regular trio of motherly Karin, farmer Mavis and stern Vivian gets an assist from the likes of Karin’s long-mentioned husband, Elroy, aging farmer Carl and hard-of-hearing World War I vet Arlo in this script by Greta Grosch, Dennis Curley and soon-to-retire Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce.
It’s the summer of 1964 and the community is ready to celebrate its diamond jubilee, and … well, that’s kind of the plot right there. “Rise Up, O Men” is pretty loose, with an emphasis on little bits of business for each of the characters. The long-suffering pastor, for example, wants to shake up his sermons, so he spends the weeks leading up to the July 4th celebration collecting jokes.
Of course, plotting hasn’t fueled the success of the Church Basement Ladies (more than 3 million served across the country to date). A lot of it is down to the comedy. Grosch (as Mavis) and Janet Paone (as Vivian) are a well-oiled machine. Paone also gets the musical highlight with her operatic reaction to the men invading her basement kitchen domain. Along with originals Dorian Chalmers (Karin) and Tim Drake (Pastor), they have an easy camaraderie that is as comfortable as a well-worn pair of shoes.
The newcomers do their part to fit in. Jeff March’s Elroy is a solid John Deere salesman mostly concerned with negotiating middle age with his wife. March’s real chance to go over the top is playing Arlene, the long-mentioned-but-never-seen church lady famous for her bad cooking.
Then there’s Peter Colburn, who plays two different men: Carl, who wonders if it’s time to retire and sort his spare lumber, and Roger, a suited salesman extolling the virtues of an electric forced-air furnace.
All of this is served up with sweet nostalgia for a ’60s far from that decade’s tumult; where the biggest crisis is falling off the jubilee float and most of the trouble comes from negotiating life with the other Protestants in town and the “fish on Fridays” crowd.
Ed Huyck is a Twin Cities theater critic.