A Second Helping Is a Vocal Extravaganza With a Lot of Heart

by Gerry Roe

Photo by Patrick Gouran 
Deborah Kennedy (l) as Karin
Nikki Savitt as Mavis 

Amana—The Old Creamery Theatre’s production of A Second Helping: The Church Basement Ladies Sequel is set in a small town in rural Minnesota, somewhere north (my guess) of the dangers of “The Cities,” the preferred term for the metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The basement ladies of the subtitle are staunch Lutheran church women—the kind of women who make the coffee, serve the food and keep the basement kitchen functioning.

The ladies are sharply characterized—individuals whose commitment to service is unquestioned and, perhaps, unquestioning, even as they live in changing times (the 1960s into the 1970s). As another Minnesotan informed the nation, “the times they are a-changin’” as we gain insight into the lives of each of the ladies and their pastor. The script propels changes in their lives, their faith, and their growth through humor (mostly) and song. At one moment, the ladies cling to the belief that dancing is un-Lutheran, and the next moment the ladies burst into song and dance. The seeming inconsistency between belief and action is not as jarring as it appears; think of the song and dance numbers as demonstrating the freedom of thought rather than the constraints of belief.

Individually, the ladies have their personal trials; collectively, they are a formidable unit. Mavis Gilmerson, played with enormous enthusiasm by Nikki Savitt, appears to be surrounded by tragedies visited on her family and friends but she soldiers on, buoyed by faith and humor. Ms. Savitt finds countless ways to demonstrate her exuberance and endurance regardless of external events, including her comic but revelatory preparations for midwifery.

Deborah Kennedy’s Karin Engleson, the youngest of the church basement ladies, has a sense of fashion and decorum but she will be the bridge between the conservatism of the 1950s and the changing times of the 1960s and 1970s. Although she gets her wish that her daughter will return from “the Cities” to take up her life in the rural community, she also suffers the greatest loss and manages to rise above it. Her singing is a great asset to the church ladies’ vocal excursions and is both beautiful and haunting in her reprise of “Cardamom, Cinnamon, Ginger and Cloves.”

Amy Marie Stewart plays Karin’s daughter, Beverly, with excellent physical and vocal control. Her bio, listing achievements in both opera and dance, is indicative of her preparation and training, but her acting is on equal footing, showing a nice sense of comic timing and a depth of understanding.

The doyenne of the church basement ladies, Vivian Snustad, is played with acerbic wit and powerful conviction by Kay Francis. In addition to showing how even the hidebound Vivian can change, Ms. Francis reveals a singing voice of real power, great range, and true beauty (even as she displays comedic vocalizations). Kay Francis sings!

Sean McCall, the lone male among the ladies, never fails to deliver the goods as a musical comedy veteran. His Pastor both accepts and dodges the eager ministrations of the church basement ladies with finely-tuned physical and verbal skill. His patient study of guitar chords in a solo scene morphs effortlessly into a spot-on Elvis impersonation.

I grew up Lutheran—small town Lutheran at that—and these characters ring true to my experience, allowing for the fact that one of the prerogatives of comedy is exaggeration. The church basement ladies I knew were not quite so insular or intolerant, but this production of A Second Helping should appeal to anyone—regardless of urban or rural background or religious orientation—who enjoys watching skilled comic acting and musicianship. The ubiquitous cups of coffee seem safe enough, but you might want to avoid the hot dish.

A Second Helping runs through Sep 2 on Old Creamery’s Mainstage. Showtimes are 3 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays and 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $27 ($17.50 for students, with $12 student rush tickets available 30 min prior to each performance).

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