Because the “Church Basement Ladies” musicals are so firmly rooted in the spirits and traditions of mid-20th century Minnesota, Spokane in 2013 seems like an odd place for them to really click with audiences.
And yet they’ve found a sort of second home at Interplayers Theatre, which today is hosting the Northwest premiere of another entry in the “Church Basement” series, “Away in the Basement,” a Christmas-based prequel to the first “Basement” story.
It was Michael Weaver who first brought the series to Interplayers: When Reed McColm, the theater’s artistic director, sought suggestions for potential musical comedy productions, “Ladies” was Weaver’s recommendation. After that show was a hit for the theater this summer, Weaver decided to tackle “Away in the Basement.”
“It’s very festive, very warm and touching, and with a lot of fun songs,” Weaver said of the show, which was the third entry in the series to be written but is set several years before its predecessors. It features the same five characters as they gossip and squabble and prepare for a Sunday school pageant: There’s Vivian (Marianne McLaughlin), Mavis (Kathie Doyle-Lipe) and Karin (Jennifer Jacobs), the older women who oversee all church functions; Karin’s impressionable daughter Signe (Sarah Uptagrafft); and Pastor Gunderson (Jerry Sciarrio), whose personal life is the source of much fascination.
Although “Away in the Basement” is a prequel, Weaver says that you don’t have to walk into the theater already familiar with the story. “You don’t have to have seen the first one to see this one,” he said. “It stands by itself and the characters are all explained.”
He further likens the show to a recurring character bit on “Saturday Night Live”: “If you know the characters, you kind of know what they’re about to do,” he said. “But if you’ve never seen it before, it’s still funny when those things happen.”
Along with Weaver, most of the cast from the original Interplayers production will be returning to the basement – the only newcomer this time around is McLaughlin, replacing an unavailable Susan Windham. Because a majority of the actors were already familiar with the tone of the show, having embodied their characters once before, Weaver says that falling into a comedic rhythm was an easy process.
“With the first show, we were finding the style and figuring out the characters, like you do in any rehearsal process,” Weaver said. “So when we started ‘Away in the Basement,’ it was interesting because (the actors) knew the characters, and we all understood the style already. It was kind of like shorthand in a lot of ways.”
That spontaneous comic energy is what makes “Away in the Basement” an ideal Christmas show, since the world of “Church Basement Ladies” is meant to feel as comfortable and lived-in as your living room on the holidays. “One of the big songs is called ‘You’re Always a Kid Again at Christmastime,’ ” Weaver said, “and it’s about the wonder and the joy of being in this family or community or friendship. It really brings that home.
“And this show is so funny – I actually think it’s funnier than ‘Church Basement Ladies,’ ” he added. “I can’t wait to get it in front of an audience, because I think it’s just going to be uproarious.”