BWW Reviews: A SECOND HELPING Served Up at Dutch Apple
Ever since Garrison Keillor put pen to paper and voice to American Public Radio, Americans have wondered about that curious species, the Minnesota Lutheran. Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson capitalized on this curiosity in "Growing Up Lutheran", the book and stand-up event that created CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES by Greta Grosch, with music and lyrics by Dennis Curley and Drew Jansen and that's currently playing at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster.
A SECOND HELPING: THE CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES SEQUEL brings more of the same, revealing the inner workings of the Minnesota Lutheran church kitchen (this time circa 1969/1970) and the inner lives of the women who cook there. Prudish matriarch Vivian (Kay Francis), afraid of "the Cities" (Minneapolis/Saint Paul), blowsy, irreverent farm wife Mavis (Shannon Connolly), and the younger, more worldly Karin (Jessica Unice) cook at Lutheran League and missionary dinners while pouring coffee for Pastor Gunderson (Paul Glodfelter) and worrying over the personal issues of Karin's daughter Beverly (Lisa Bark).
In this installment, the church ladies take on Vietnam, women's liberation, hippies, and the like – in some instances more successfully than others. Part of it may be that some of the characters, particularly Vivian, are almost purely stereotypes, despite Kay Francis' best efforts to give her character depth. The most sympathetic character, the one most audience members will relate to, is Karin – she is the woman straddling traditional housewife and working woman, the 1960's woman who yearned to get a degree, a job in the Cities, and a home in the suburbs, but who never finished college and returned home to get married, have children, and take over the church kitchen supervision. Not surprisingly, she finds herself living her life through Beverly, who has finished college and is working in the Cities, until she and her husband come back to their home town. Karin is horrified, but Beverly is past the home/career crisis in her own mind, and she has come home because she wants to be there, not because she has to be there. It is this realization that paves the way for a real adult relationship between Karin and Beverly.
Mavis and Vivian are the polar opposites, The Farm woman who sees sex and reproduction as everyday life on The Farm, and the leftover Victorian who's inclined to cover the piano legs in order to protect everyone from the horrid sight of naked limbs. Although women like Vivian still existed in the 1960's, it is doubtful that any of them could really proclaim as Vivian does that adoption is the cleanest way to have children (because it avoids that messy sex business). That's humorous, of course, but it's still pushing it. Mavis' earthy humor, on the other hand, and her accidentally dangerous ways with sharp objects and her less than stellar hygienic precautions in the kitchen are some of the charms of the show. She'd be the modern neighborhood mother who believes that you can't raise healthy children if they don't get dirty.
This is a musical, but neither the music nor the lyrics are stellar – there's not much to whistle on the way out of the theatre, although the songs are mostly humorous. If there's ever a soundtrack recording, the cut you'll keep playing is "Cardamom, Cinnamon, Ginger, and Clove," a sentimental number voiced first as a solo by Beverly, and then later by Karin, that has the best music and lyrics of the evening. "Get Back In the Game," which analogizes marriage to sports, is certainly an apt piece, and is one of the brightest ensemble spots in this show.
"Old Dog, New Tricks" is the number in which Pastor Gunderson attempts to become a hip, relevant minister, as he masters church music for the guitar and morphs into a swinging Elvis impersonator when no one is looking. It's not surprising that his guitar, first suggested by Beverly as she tells the kitchen crew and pastor of ecumenical services in the Cities, leads him down the primrose path to religious perdition – becoming a Lutheran church camp pastor and discovering leisure suits, from "Chess King in the mall" in a perfect moment of early 1970's flashback. Glodfelter's Pastor Gunderson feels real; if you knew any clergy of the period who were on the wrong side of 40 and found themselves desperate to modernize, you knew Pastor Gunderson personally.
You also knew this kitchen. The set is a faithful (no pun intended) recreation of a 1960's religious facility kitchen. The religious objects in the kitchen might vary – an unused crucifix here, a pair of Shabbat candlesticks needing polishing there – but that refrigerator, that deep industrial sink, that big freezer, and the door that led to wherever the fuse box was hidden were standard, and many of us spent a surprising amount of time in those rooms, with their cupboards hiding massive quantities of dishes and serving bowls. Set designer Dominic Lau deserves equally massive credit for authentically reproducing that hallowed institution, the church kitchen, on the Dutch Apple stage.
The book of this show, like the music, is serviceable but not memorable; it is the actors' performances, not the play itself, that come to life on stage. Unfortunately, as with many musicals, the writers mistake easy and sometimes contrived sentimentality for genuine emotional depth. This is not the play for someone anticipating anything genuinely dramatic or thought-provoking; it revisits the era nostalgically, but not with any true hindsight or insight as Garrison Keillor (or the actual originators of this set of entertainments) would. However, it's entertaining enough if you're looking for an evening's amusement, and if you liked the original show at Dutch Apple, you may well like this even better as you follow the personal transformations of Karin and Beverly.
A SECOND HELPING is on the Dutch Apple stage (with string bean casserole on the Dutch Apple buffet as a nostalgic menu counterpoint) through November 10. For tickets, visit www.dutchapple.com, or call 717-898-1900.
Photo Credit: Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre