Five graduate students — all card-carrying liberals — share a house together, and enjoy having a big dinner together, every Sunday, talking about issues important to them. “We’ll bicker to the death, with our very last breath, and tonight we save the world,” they sing. “If we took just one Sunday off, humankind would perish.”
One Sunday, though, they have an unexpected guest — Zack, a truck driver who drove one of them home when his car broke down. It turns out he’s ultra-far right and possibly insane. He shocks them with his views, stating, among other things, that there’s “no real proof” that Hitler killed 6 million Jews.
This all happens within the first few minutes of “The Last Supper,” a new musical that is premiering at the South Orange Performing Arts Center through Aug. 7. And it sets into motion a story that sees the five liberals strike back, violently, against Zack and other conservatives who they get to visit them in a succession of Sunday dinners — including a priest who calls electroshock therapy for homosexuals “a teensy nudge from Jesus”
Though filled with such dark touches (which might be disturbing in another context), ‘The Last Supper” is a consistently funny and fast-moving musical. This is particularly impressive given the serious subject at its core: The vast, seemingly unbridgeable distance that currently exists between the far left and the far right in our country. Right-wing characters are skewered for their cruelty and blindness; those on the left, for their irrational zealotry and self-importance. References to the pandemic, the insurrection and more set the action very much in the present.
The musical, written by Jeremy Desmon and Jeff Thomson, is loosely based on a non-musical 1995 film that starred Cameron Diaz, Jason Alexander and others. And it’s got a stellar team behind it, both onstage and off. Howard Kagan, a two-time Tony winner (for “Pippin” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”), is producing, and co-producer Steve Schnall, who is on the SOPAC board of governors, helped steer the play there for this try-out run. Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller is directing, and Lorin Latarro, whose credits include the current Broadway production of “Into the Woods,” is handling the choreography. The brightly colored costumes created by Haydee Zelideth echo the raucous, in-your-face tone of the comedy.
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”).
D’Amboise plays Naomi Day, a cynical broadcaster on a right wing, Fox-like TV channel whom the five friends “hate-watch.” In other words, she’s so repugnant they just can’t turn away. She speaks to her audience in lurid headlines (“Illegals stealing your social security; radical climate activists coming to cancel — get this — apple pie”). The five friends consider her “Cruella de Vil with a teleprompter” and when they watch her show, we see d’Amboise slinking around the stage, coy and seductive. A shameless, smugly self-satisfied manipulator.
It’s a smart, memorable way to bring the story to life; I’ve never seen a character quite like her.
Smart, too, is having Evans — in the manner of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — play the various male and female right-wing nuts whom the five friends invite to dinner on successive Sundays. He changes costumes and wigs countless times in the course of the show, adopting different accents and mannerisms for each one. Like d’Amboise, he’s always fun to watch, and helps lift “The Last Supper” beyond the realm of the ordinary.
Newell is a constant scene-stealer as well, playing the radical feminist Jude, who is always ready with a witty comeback and whose anger seems to be constantly hovering near its boiling point.
The producers have talked about bringing “The Last Supper,” at some point, to Broadway, and I could see that happening. But there are still some things that need to be worked out.
While the dialogue and songs are packed with jokes and topical references, I found it hard to catch them all, as the actors didn’t always sing loud enough to be heard clearly over the five-piece band, and entire lines were sometimes lost.
I won’t discuss the ending at length, in order not to spoil the surprise, but I found it unsatisfying, with one of the characters undergoing a sudden, unbelievable change, leading to a meant-to-be-inspirational final segment that seemed out of place.
But still, “The Last Supper” held my attention, and generated lots of laughs, and vividly evoked the absurdity of the times we’re living through in a way that no other theatrical presentation (that I’ve experienced personally, at least) has tried to do.
A Broadway production is not guaranteed, of course. But I have a feeling this short SOPAC run won’t be the last we hear about this musical.
“The Last Supper” will be presented at the South Orange Performing Arts Center through Aug. 7. Visit sopacnow.org.
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