Musical comedy ‘The Last Supper’ is having its first run at SOPAC in South Orange

last supper preview

Charlotte d’Amboise, right, rehearses for the South Orange Performing Arts Center’s production of “The Last Supper.”

In 1995 — after she was in “The Mask” but before her breakthrough role in “There’s Something About Mary” — Cameron Diaz co-starred with Jason Alexander, Nora Dunn, Ron Perlman and others in the film “The Last Supper.” The black comedy didn’t make much of an impact. But it has been reimagined, improbably, as a musical, written by Jeremy Desmon and Jeff Thomson, and that musical was presented for the first time at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on July 27, and will run through Aug. 7.

“Jeff is someone I’ve been talking to, over the years, trying to find a project to work on together,” said producer Howard Kagan, a two-time Tony winner (for “Pippin” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”). “He’s a composer and he was pitching me something that I wasn’t particularly interested in. And he said to me, ‘Well, is there anything you’re interested in? Maybe we’ll see if we’ll write something.’

“I said, ‘I really want to examine a way to get this whole story about what’s happening in American politics and how crazy it is, what’s going on in the world, and turn it into a political satire. A musical comedy satire, like ‘Book of Mormon’ does for religion. And he said, ‘I have one of those.’

“It turns out, he and Jeremy had been huge fans of this film. And during the pandemic, they had written a musical based on this film. I hung up the phone, and he emailed me the script and the score and the next day I called them and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Because it was hilarious. You know, it was really terrific.”

The show, said Kagan, pits liberals vs. conservatives, but not in a way that takes sides.

“The point of this show, and it’s also what the movie was about, is to caution against — through satire — the idea that we should just keep one-upping one another in terms of how bad we can be in terms of accomplishing our political goals. Because ultimately that leads to political violence. And once you get to physical violence, now you’ve got fascism. And democracy can’t survive that.

“So the point of the show is not to lacerate conservatives or liberals in particular, but to illustrate the folly of going down a road where we’re one-upping one another on how ruthless we can be.”

Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller (Broadway’s “Next Fall” and “Mother’s and Sons”) is directing this production, and Lorin Latarro (Broadway’s “Into the Woods” and “Waitress”) is handling the choreography.

“Howard called me and asked me if I would come and listen to a read-through of this musical, ‘The Last Supper,’ and I was sold by the third page,” said Kaller. ” I think the music is extraordinary. I think the lyrics are smart and clever, and it’s very individual in that, through these times we’re living in, it gives a lot of opportunity for laughter, for heart, and for listening.”

By “listening,” she said, she means “listening to other points of view than my own, and just listening to humanity: really breaking it down and saying, ‘We’re all human beings. Let’s wipe the whiteboard clean. Let’s listen to each other. I may not agree with you, but I want to be able to see you as a human being. I might fight you and I might march against you and I might vote in a completely different way than you. But I want to get back to humanity.’ ”

From left, Megan Kane, Allan K. Washington, Wes Zurick and Alex Newell rehearse for “The Last Supper.”

Two-time Tony nominee Charlotte d’Amboise (“Pippin,” “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway”) is co-starring, with other actors including Mark Evans (Broadway’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Waitress”) and Alex Newell (television’s “Glee,” Broadway’s “Once on This Island”). Steve Schnall, an old friend of Kagan’s who was a co-producer on “Pippin” and is on SOPAC’s board of governors, is one of the co-producers.

Kagan and Schnall say they hope to bring “The Last Supper” to Broadway, at some point, and that SOPAC represents an ideal place to get it ready.

“You need an audience that’s highly engaged, because there is two-way communication,” said Schall. “The actors and the creative team are feeding off of the energy that is provided by the audience, and there is no better place that I’ve ever seen than SOPAC to provide that.”

SOPAC has never been used this way before: For an out-of-town tryout to get a new play or musical ready for Broadway.

“There are certain theaters, today, that are known to provide a hospitable environment for that, in terms of the audiences: that they’re interested in new theater and they like to go to Broadway, and the building has the right equipment, etc. etc.,” said Kagan. “But because of the pandemic, most of those are backed up. Like, they have shows that they were supposed to do in 2020 and ’21 — shows they were originally, before the pandemic, preparing for ’22, ’23. So those shows have to find their place in those venues, in their normal schedule.

“I had said to Steve, I wanted to find a place (for ‘The Last Supper’) and he had suggested I go and check out SOPAC. Even though they had never done that, it has all those attributes. It’s a great building. It has the audience that knows Broadway. As I understand, there’s even a lot of Broadway actors that live nearby, and crew and musicians all live out there. So, I went and saw a show with Steve and I just couldn’t wait to get in there. It’s such a beautiful facility.”

Other, larger New Jersey theaters, such as the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn and the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, have been used in this way. But “The Last Supper,” said Kagan, “only has a cast of seven and a five-piece band. This show has the sort of physical production attributes that would be swallowed up in a place like Paper Mill. It might be fine (there), but there’s no reason, in my head, to take a risk to put a show like this in a big theater like that. It’s a more intimate show.”

Major changes are expected, in the course of the SOPAC run.

“It’s actually normal and healthy,” said Kagan. “It’s impossible to know, when you write something or when you rehearse it, what the audience reaction is going to be. So you always use the opportunity put changes in, rehearse the changes during the day based on things you learned the night before, and then show a slightly different show to the audience. And that, over the course of two weeks, can result in a very different show.

“The basic bones of the show will stay the same. But sometimes a song gets added, or a song gets cut. Sometimes there’ll be a couple of jokes that don’t land. It’s like when comedians try bits out in standup: Sometimes the jokes don’t work, so you write a different joke.

“The whole team is there every night sitting in the back, watching: Honestly, watching the audience. Meaning, we know what’s going on onstage, because we’ve been in rehearsals for four weeks. But now we’re taking notes on, like, where the laughs are, and where it gets quiet. In musical comedy, there’s often breaks from the comedy where you do something a little romantic, or touching. So there has to be clarity in the storytelling. And you get that from listening to the audience, and watching the audience. Not just how much they applaud, but whether they’re quiet, whether they’re fidgety, whether they’re laughing. It’s definitely an interactive process.”

The South Orange Performing Arts Center presents “The Last Supper,” July 28-30 and Aug. 3-6 at 7:30 p.m., and July 31 and Aug. 6-7 at 3 p.m. Visit sopacnow.org.

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