WORTHINGTON -- When Jessica Zuehlke and her husband, Jim Stowell, were commissioned to write a musical production about the goings-on in a church kitchen, Zuehlke had only to search her memory to supplement the material.
Zuehlke, the daughter of Cal and Nancy Zuehlke of Worthington, drew upon her own upbringing and experiences at the local First Lutheran Church in putting together "Church Basement Ladies," a smash musical currently playing to enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews at the Plymouth Playhouse in the Twin Cities.
"The real key to comedy is the characters have to be real," explained Zuehlke. "Even though they're going to be exaggerated, extended, especially in the songs, they have to resonate with people from any faith, all faiths, no particular faith at all. The characters have to be women they knew in their own family, women they heard about on Garrison Keillor. They have to care about them."
To create that realistic aura from an era gone by, Zuehlke solicited help from her mom and sisters, Sally and Jill, in coming up with suitable memories, recipes and generating feedback.
"My mom is in there, my aunts and grandmas and lots of wonderful people from Worthington," Zuehlke said about the musical's characters. "I used a few names here and there, not full complete first and last names, but just going through the church rosters, putting different personalities with different names."
Zuehlke graduated from Worthington High School in 1968. She participated in a few plays in high school, but her interest in theater really began during her first teaching job -- the contract required her to direct the school plays.
"I struggled to learn how to direct and then took some time to go to graduate school at the University of Minnesota," Zuehlke recalled. "I went there to learn how to better work with students and ended up finding a whole new world for myself. It launched my theater training. I became involved in the Minneapolis theater world -- the Children's Theatre, Guthrie, studied dance, mime. I worked in professional theater as an actress and a little bit of directing and everything else, including fund-raising."
A stint with the Minnesota State Arts Board and Compas (Community Programs in the Arts) took Zuehlke all over the state as an artist in residence. When she tired of traveling, she landed a position teaching theater in the Red Wing school district. She currently teaches English to at-risk students at an alternative school and lives in Red Wing.
"It's a completely different type of teaching, and it did allow me to get back into professional theater," she said about her job. "I feel very challenged and lucky."
Writing a musical was a new sort of challenge for Zuehlke and Stowell. "Church Basement Ladies" is described in publicity materials as "a celebration of the church basement kitchen and the women who work there ... four distinct characters and their relationships as they organize the food and problems of a rural Minnesota church. ... They stave off potential disasters, share and debate recipes, instruct the young and keep the Pastor on due course while thoroughly enjoying (and tolerating) each other."
The musical is based on the writings of authors-humorists Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, creators of the best-selling book "Growing Up Lutheran." Zuehlke became acquainted with Nelson while directing children's productions in Grand Rapids.
"She called me up and said, 'I need you. My great friend and partner, Janet, and I have been writing these little coffee table Lutheran humor books, and they've been selling like hotcakes. We have also been touring a two-woman comedy routine, but we're wearing out. The material is working, and people love us, and we think it should be a play."
Two other playwrights had attempted drafts of a play based on the Lutheran humor books, but the authors weren't satisfied with the results. Although Zuehlke was excited about the idea, she wasn't sure she wanted to delve into such a huge project by herself, so she enlisted her husband's help. Stowell is a storyteller, writer and actor who is best known for his one-man shows, although he's been involved in countless other productions.
"I told them that if they hired us both, they'd have a better script, and I'd have the time with him that I need and want," Zuehlke explained. "When he's off, those evenings are really precious. So, we all said yes, and in the spring of 2003, we went in with the first draft. The whole summer of 2003, we worked on the second draft."
During Draft No. 3, a composer, Drew Jansen, was brought in to work on the music and lyrics. Finally, when the timing was deemed right, a production was mounted with a preliminary tour in January and February 2005.
"We did it in four cities that had to be at least 80 miles away from Minneapolis -- St. Cloud, Moorhead, Fargo and Bismarck -- three to six nights in each place. We had sell-out crowds. People were laughing, crying. It was a wonderful opportunity. Playwrights don't usually get the opportunity to see their infant toddle around on the stage with a real crowd, a real situation, then take it back into the drawing room and fine-tune it."
"Church Basement Ladies" is now a fixture at the Plymouth Playhouse, and its original three-month run has been extended to 13 months. After that, it will probably tour the Midwest.
Zuehlke is unabashedly pleased with the success of the musical.
"It's really strange, I must admit," she said. "Jim has been in the theater professionally for 35 years, and I was for 20, and this is our first commercial endeavor where we've been hired to do a play. To have it be our first musical and be selling so strongly before the play even opened was very gratifying.... Many people in my family, Jim's family and our friends -- we've all tried to theorize what works so beautifully about it. You just never know in the theater what makes people show up. We think it just hit a comfort button that's really needed right now. People wanted to see their moms and grandmas on the stage, wanted to be around the food. There's such a huge interest in cooking, and at those church meals, it was just this endless stream of food coming out of the kitchen. There's just a certain element of nostalgia that's marketable right now."
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