BWW Review: A SECOND HELPING at Cumberland County Playhouse
You might be surprised by this, but A Second Helping, the musical now onstage through the weekend at Cumberland County Playhouse' Adventure Theatre, has more in common with The Godfather, Part II than you might expect. Both of them, as sequels to the original material that spawned them, do something sequels usually are incapable of: They're better than their precursors.
That, thankfully - and perhaps disappointingly, depending on your perspective - is good news, since A Second Helping is a sweetly genuine and completely authentic, small-scaled musical about the lives of Lutheran church women in Minnesota. And the other one is about ruthless men who are involved in illicit business affairs that often results in something being offed.
The women in A Second Helping - The Church Basement Ladies of the original musical - share their lives, family stories and tales from their tight-knit community (which should never be considered gossip, mind you) with one another while toiling in the kitchen of the local church, pastored by a god-fearing minister who they think isn't as sharp or as worldly or as on-the-mark as they consider themselves to be. Intimate and heartfelt, A Second Helping isn't outlandish or overly theatrical, rather it is a self-effacing, gently amusing tale of friendship that endures because of shared experiences and a bright and breezy outlook.
Neither does it matter if you are Lutheran or not: the characters portrayed in A Second Helping, are akin to women you knew from growing up in any church community. For example, I am reminded of my mother and my Aunt Ilene and their shared confidences and almost daily conversations about the people in our small towns and the way news was shared among friends and relatives in a far simpler time (A Second Helping takes place in 1969-70) that predates social media and 24/7 news coverage.
Conversations among the three main characters of the musical - Mavis Gilmerson (played by Patty Payne), Vivian Snustad (Bonner Church) and Karin Engelson (Weslie Webster) - ring with such authenticity that I am reminded of my mother and my aunt sharing a recipe for "Better Than Sex" Cake. Aunt Ilene, the very pillar of the First Baptist Church in Ramer, Tennessee, assured my mother that the new dessert was certainly delicious and second helping would be de rigueur when it was served, "But I'm not so old that I can't remember that it's not really better than sex." I laughed the first time I heard my mother tell the story and I laughed while watching A Second Helping and Patty Payne and Weslie Webster brought back a memory of two women I love very much.
It's that sense of belonging that makes a community important, whether it's in rural Tennessee or rural Minnesota - or even if it's in Greece or Scotland, no doubt - and that's why A Second Helping speaks so eloquently to audiences in Crossville.
Inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, including the best-seller Growing Up Lutheran by Greta Grosch, one thing is apparent in A Second Helping: It doesn't matter what the plot is, or what events drive the narrative, the show touches the heart because of its familiarity, the sense that you know these people as well as you know your own.
With music and lyrics by Dennis Curley and Drew Jansen that are pleasant and tuneful (clearly, there are no big production numbers or showstopping 11 o'clock numbers), they help to tell the women's personal tales and many shared moments in a way that's enormously entertaining. Performed by a tight-knit ensemble of actors, under the capable direction of Rene E. Pulliam and musical direction of Ron Murphy, A Second Helping is the kind of diversion that goes down so well in these turbulent times in which we live, transporting us to a kinder, gentler time (even before George H.W. Bush made that campaign promise more than 20 years ago).
Jason Ross leads the congregation as Pastor Gunderson, the kind-hearted if easily manipulated minister whose bride will always be known as "the new wife," no matter how long they are wed. Patty Payne is delightfully daft as Mavis Gunderson, her tales of life on the farm keeping things clipping along at a good rate. As the seemingly smug Vivian Snustad, Bonner Church is warmly ingratiating, even as she passes judgment on most everything and everybody, engendering many laughs with her malapropisms and pitch perfect accent.
Weslie Webster, as Karin Engelson, gives a commanding, if understated, performance with nary a whiff of stagey artifice. Rather, she very seamlessly slips into the role in a completely believable way, playing the perfect onstage mother to her daughter Beverly Engelson Hauge, portrayed with a fillip of insouciance and loads of charm by Caitie L. Moss.
Together, the five members of the ensemble bring the show to life with a zestful energy that ensures audiences will be happy they are along for the ride, whether they're members of Faith Baptist Church or the Crab Orchard Church of God of Prophecy.
Kathryn E. Cook provides the ideal setting for the musical: the spacious basement kitchen of the Lutheran Church, with much attention to detail. Renee Luttrell's costumes, which perfectly evoke the show's time period, clothe the actors in such a way that their characters become even better delineated in the process.
A Second Helping, The Church Basement Ladies Sequel. Inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, including the best-seller Growing Up Lutheran by Greta Grosch. Music and lyrics by Dennis Curley and Drew Jansen. Directed by Rene E. Pulliam. Music direction by Ron Murphy. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Running through May 27. For reservations, call (931) 484-5000 or go online at www.ccplayhouse.com.