Church ladies are back for ‘A Second Helping’

Patricia Harrelson

The year is 1969, and change is at the forefront of the lives of four women who run the kitchen at West Cornucopia Lutheran Church in rural Minnesota. And there you have it: the theme and setting for "A Second Helping: The Church Basement Ladies Sequel" Sierra Repertory Theatre's latest production at the Fallon House Theater in Columbia.

The first installment of Greta Groush's "Church Basement Ladies" introduced the matriarch who runs the kitchen, Vivian Snustad, the flamboyant farm wife, Mavis Gilmerson, and Karin Engleson and her daughter Signe, who wanted to bring fresh ideas to the kitchen, much to Vivian's disapproval.

Directed and choreographed by Michael Misko, these ladies are back with heartwarming humor and hilarious antics to serve high school students at the Lutheran League Banquet, followed by a church-sponsored Missionary Night, and finally to weather the rise and fall of a Viking's Super Bowl Sunday. Lots of changes - relocation, love, birth, death, transformation - along with laughter and tears happen in the same yellow and lime-green subterranean kitchen designed by Jay Heiserman.

Misko directs five actors who bring physical comedy, honesty, and universality to the stage in the shape of archetypal characters who are not in the least stereotypical.

The curtain rises, as it did in the first installment, on the church's Pastor Gunderson, played by Ryan William Bailey, who introduces the basement ladies. Bailey's rich crooning voice opens the door to the gals who will wow the audience for the rest of the night. He also sets the musical bar nice and high for the production. Musical Director Joel Scott Shade has charmed dazzling sound from all of the actor-singers.

Becky Saunders is almost risque singing "God's Way of Saying," but then her whole performance as Mavis is a laugh riot. The knife wielding farmer's wife is bold, impetuous and resourceful, and her choice remarks pepper the night with spicy humor. Saunders shines every time she hits an SRT stage.

Mavis's counterpart is Vivian Snustad, played by Caitlin Randall. She is an elderly curmudgeon who one can't help but love, especially when she's dropping malapropisms, like "chafe" for "chaste," espousing illogical conclusions, like "adoption is a modest way to have a baby," or wearing Wonder Bread bags on her feet in lieu of snow boots. Randall's shining moment, however, comes when singing "Vivian's Bad Trip," about her dreaded visit to the cities.

Nancy O'Bryan balances physical comedy and honest melodrama in her portrayal of Karin Engleson, the grandmother-to-be. Karin pushes the edges of Lutheran propriety - albeit ambivalently - until her transformation in dress and hair in the second act. It's a moment worth waiting for, preceded as it is by the most serious and touching point of the play.

Signe, who changed her name to Beverly after she married, is played by Paige Herschell. Sneaking back into the empty kitchen where she grew up after her return from the cities, Beverly anoints the beloved place with her sweet voice in the one song of this musical that has true staying power: "Cardamon, Cinnamon, Ginger & Cloves." When O'Bryan reprises the song at start of the second act, echoing her stage daughter, the once chuckling audience is as quiet as can be.

Song, more than plot, carries the messages in "Church Basement Ladies." The number "Mary/Martha" measures the worth of the unappreciated women who volunteer in the church kitchen, while "You Never Know" instructs about the inevitability of change. The choreography trims messages in song with hilarity, until even the least giggle-some among audiences will feel a chortle choke forth.

Bina Bieker clothes the women in period print dresses and bib aprons with Beverly a step ahead in youthful late '60s fashion, but the way Bieker costumes Pastor Gundersen, moving him from homely brown to silly grass skirt to psychedelic blue vest and pants magnifies the goofy, lovable appeal of Bailey as the pastor.

Lighting by Peter FA Leibold VI spotlights, encircles and glorifies the church basement gals as they harmonize and cavort. One producer called "Church Basement Ladies" the Lutheran answer to "Nunsense."

There's no doubt that the laughter prompted by this musical is divine. Take yourself to the Fallon House for a large dose of good feeling.

"A Second Helping" plays through June 8. Call 532-3120 for reservations.

The Union Democrat
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