Where Hollywood can’t get enough of reboots, reimaginings and sequels — why else Jaws: The Revenge or The Expendables 3? — in live theatre, sequels are the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps in recognition of the law of diminishing returns, even when a play or musical earns rave reviews, its world is seldom revisited.
Playwright Greta Grosch bucked the trend when she penned Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping, a follow-up to the hilarious and well-received Church Basement Ladies, written by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke. Boulder’s Dinner Theatre scored a hit with the original production last year, and with the sequel they have an even bigger hit on their hands.
Set in rural Minnesota as the 1960s are giving way to the 1970s, Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping picks up right where Church Basement Ladies left off. In the basement of the local Lutheran church, dedicated, resilient and quirky women work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the church and its congregation are well looked after. They cook and clean and do just about anything else needed to help the pastor keep things humming along for baptisms, funerals and every event in between.
Vivian (Barb Reeves) represents the old guard. The most old-fashioned of the group, she fears the iniquities of “The Cities” — the hotbeds of sin that are Minneapolis and St. Paul. She’s so uptight it’s a wonder she gets any sleep at night. Some years earlier, Vivian ceded her role as leader of the church basement ladies to Karin (Tracy Warren). Karin shares Vivian’s devotion to service, but is young enough not to fear miniskirts, interfaith marriage and the like.
Not long after A Second Helping gets going, Karin’s daughter, Beverly (Sara Grover), returns to town with her husband in tow and a bun in the oven. Soon, she is toiling tirelessly alongside her mother, Vivian and Mavis (Bren. Eyestone Burron), the most outlandish of the group, as they assist Pastor Gunderson (Wayne Kennedy) with the tending of the flock.
Anyone who has ever spent time in a church or synagogue will appreciate the care that has gone into crafting these characters. But as well-written as they are, they couldn’t come to such vivid life without some help, and BDT’s crew works their magic once again. Returning for the sequel, Scenic Designer Amy Campion recreates and improves upon the basement itself. Everywhere you look, from the Enstrom to the egg beaters, the details dazzle.
Costume Designer Linda Morken is back as well, and her efforts are equally evident. The women’s outfits — particularly their signature aprons — help cement the period as well as demark the various personalities. Mavis’ Vikings booster Super Bowl dress is by far the most memorable highlight. Morken also has fun with the pastor. At one point, he struts around the kitchen in an island-style grass skirt and feathered headdress while still sporting black dress socks and, in a bit of costuming masterwork, sock garters.
Speaking of the pastor, Wayne Kennedy has been knocking audiences dead at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre for many, many years. His relaxed acting style combined with his impeccable comic timing results in some of the best work you’ll see on stage anywhere. Though the women are the focus of A Second Helping, Kennedy makes the absolute most out of what is essentially a supporting role.
While Reeves, Warren and Grover all acquit themselves well, it is Burron who challenges Kennedy for the CBL2 Best Actor award. I was overjoyed when I learned that Burron, a former BDT regular who ended her long absence when she returned for Church Basement Ladies, was reprising her role in A Second Helping. Though the plot, such as it is, revolves around the relationship between Karin and Beverly, Burron’s Mavis is really the center of the show. With every line she delivers and every expression she employs, she will have you laughing until your sides literally ache.
What makes A Second Helping such an amazing piece of theatre is that, in addition to how screamingly funny it is, it also manages to touch the audience on a deeply emotional level. Among all the silliness, sight gags and double entendres are sprinkled moments of genuine tenderness that will make many viewers misty-eyed if not downright teary.
Given the successes of both the original and A Second Helping, Boulder’s Dinner Theatre may need to consider making visits with the church basement ladies an ongoing tradition. After all, there are three more sequels in the series, and judging by the first two shows, these ladies have a lot more humor and heart to share.