"I think good art should push buttons," says Alex Newell (Once on This Island), who is currently starring in the potentially button-pushing new musical The Last Supper, which began its world premiere engagement July 27 at South Orange Performing Arts Center in New Jersey.
Based on the 1995 film of the same name, The Last Supper centers on a group of five liberal grad students who host dinner parties for their neighbors in their conservative college town. If today's social media climate between the two political doctrines is any indication, these "friendly," neighborhood gatherings are not likely to go well.
Along with Newell, the dark comedy features Pomme Koch, Megan Kane, Allan K. Washington, and Wes Zurick as the disruptive students, with Mark Evans appearing as all of the dinner guests (11 in total). Two-time Tony nominee Charlotte d'Amboise stars as Naomi Day, a controversial, conservative talk show host who receives an invitation to dine.
"It's such a dark comedy, but we lean into the funny of it all," says Newell. "Especially with how each of the dinner guests enters and how we interact with them. We try to make all of their views real."
It's hard to say who comes out on top at the end of the story (partly because we don't want to spoil anything), but with conflicting ideologies on display, there is bound to be some discord in the audience as well. "At the end of the day, art is subjective. Especially when you're talking about topical things, it's holding up a mirror, so if you feel something negative about it, it's showing you your own views most times."
This is a different type of comedy for Newell, whose previous work has been much lighter fare. The musical performer was introduced to audiences on the Fox series Glee and most recently completed two seasons of another television musical, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. While both series certainly deal with serious topics, the humor is much more straight-forward and Newell was often the one cracking-wise. He's enjoying stretching this new comedy muscle. "It's nice to explore how to make real life situations that are very dark, light and funny and real. I have to justify everything, and make it make sense for me first before I can even think about how to perform it."
The Last Supper has a book, music, and lyrics by Jeremy Desmon and Jeff Thomson, who have been in the rehearsal room, adjusting the show to fit the performers as they create brand new musical theatre characters. Newell is playing Jude, who was originally portrayed by Cameron Diaz in the Dan Rosen screenplay. "Cameron Diaz is a white woman. I am not white," says Newell. "So, it's different when you're at a dinner table talking about race as a character that was originally meant for someone not of color. You can't have a racially charged dialogue and have me sit there and say nothing because that's not how it would work in real life."
Newell hopes that atmosphere of open communication experienced in the production will carry over to audiences as well. "It's about conversation and talking to each other, and being able to have different ideas and ideologies and views on society. But still being able to talk to each other, not just 'if you have a different idea, you're wrong and you don't deserve to live.'" (We said it was dark.)
The Last Supper runs at SPOAC through August 7. For tickets and additional information, click here.