Sweatin' to the Hackneyed

Milton Berle isn't actually backstage at The Last Supper, but his voice is, if only on Memorex. The Borscht Belt comedian has loaned his name and endorsement to Artie Butler's hapless and ambitious new musical about a hapless but ambitious guy trying to sell a musical comedy to a Broadway agent. During a phone call, Berle persuades a fictional theater agent, Lou Gordon, to talk to his old friend, the fictional Lenny Fields (Butler), about Lenny's dream of putting on a show.

Lenny's concept is also called The Last Supper. It's a musical about a group of people checking into a fat farm. Is obesity funny? Try these lyrics out for size: "The spa food is killing me/Oh, what I'd give for a wheel of Brie."

Oops, those aren't real lyrics. Those lines were volunteered by my friend Robbie, who -- intrigued with the notion of singing, dancing dieters -- came up with his own camp version of The Last Supper without even seeing it on stage. (Note to Robbie: I am no longer taking lyric-related calls from you.) Here are some real lines: "My heart cries/For French fries."

You, too, could make up your own set of lyrics, and that's part of the problem with The Last Supper, which has settled in at the Hollywood Playhouse for a pre-off-Broadway tryout. It's a concept that calls out for outrageousness -- someone along the lines of Charles Ludlam or John Belushi. Or at least a punch-drunk slumber-partier with comic chops. And that's exactly what Artie Butler isn't.

He may be a Grammy-nominated composer and arranger whose works include music for the CBS miniseries Sinatra as well as such Hollywood movies as What's Up Doc? and The Rescuers. He may, in real life, be a good friend of Milton Berle. But what he's not is an actor, much less an effervescent stage presence whom you'd want to watch and listen to for two hours.

Structured as a play within a play, The Last Supper moves back and forth between Lenny's describing his show to the unseen Lou (the voice of Lou Zorich) and his acting out selections from it. The show that the audience sees is the same sketch version of The Last Supper that Lou "sees."

Once inside Lou's office, Lenny, "a 55-year-old insurance salesman from Flatbush," describes his childhood fascination with Broadway, particularly with the Wintergarden Theater, where his parents took him (a shoddy facsimile of which we can view through an upstage scrim). Lenny then explains that it's his greatest desire to stage a show on the Great White Way. So we see two stories unfold: one in which Lenny tries to persuade Lou to back him; the other in which we follow the activities of the characters who check in to the fictional Velvet Door spa.

Among the hungry campers impersonated by Lenny are: Leroy, a 350-pound truck driver who can no longer fit in the cab of his truck; Biff, a guy who adds the majority of his excess poundage through social drinking; and someone described as a thirtysomething "girl" with a "street attitude," by which Butler (who wrote the book and lyrics with Earl Brown) apparently means a black woman. Lou suggests that Bette Midler might be cast in the role of Vivienne, the spa's red-boa-adorned maitre d', but the charm of this idea is lost in Butler's colorless Bette Midler imitation.

Each Last Supper character has his or her own story, which Lenny fleshes out with songs. Here's an example from Biff's segment: "You really should be thinkin'/How your breath is always stinkin'." If you don't think that's an inspired sequence (I didn't), you probably won't enjoy the show's resurrection of other vaudeville-style clinkers. At one point Lou describes food lovers who "went to Coconut Grove. They were so hungry, they ate the Grove. So now we have to call it the Coconut."

Take this show, please.
Butler's career has been built around songwriting, so it's no surprise that some of the songs are sweet and easy to listen to. Butler's voice, on the other hand, is serviceable and nothing more. He plays the piano on stage, sometimes accompanying himself. Other numbers feature recorded arrangements and backup singers. The most inspired number by far is "Feed a Hungry Man," an R&B-tinged ballad in which a would-be eater prays, "I don't need no red Ferrari/I don't need no cash at all/Dear Lord, if you can hear me,/Send down a muffin six feet tall."

This kind of verve and visual imagery are missing from almost every other song in the show. It's a keeper, but it comes too late. By the time the character begs God to "drop me in a coffin full of burgers and fries," you'll want to be excused from dinner. You'll also want Butler to stick a fork in Conchita Gonzales, the Carmen Miranda-inspired exercise teacher. She's a gratuitous ethnic cartoon, who speaks in pidgin Spanish and refers to "no more friggin' enchiladas."

Ethnic stereotypes aside, some of Butler's musical schmaltz would be easier to take if it weren't layered with so much heartfelt blubber. Maybe we can't expect an insurance salesman from Flatbush to quote Shakespeare like a pro, but do we have to listen to him talk about how "dreams are the stuff that life is made of"?

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