Kate Baldwin, Norbert Leo Butz, and More Broadway Stars Cast in 2nd ‘SOMA backStage Reading Series’

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From South Orange Performing Arts Center:

From Left to Right: Kate Baldwin, Norbet Leo Butz, and Charlie Pollock

SOPAC is thrilled to announce the cast for its second annual SOMA backStage Reading Series, which features staged readings of THINGS WITH FRIENDS, a new play by Kristoffer Diaz, and SHE REACHED FOR HEAVEN, a new musical by Oliver House and Hunter Bird.  The cast for the series includes two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, two-time Tony Award nominee Kate Baldwin, and other Broadway veterans such as Miguel Cervantes, Mandy Gonzalez, Manu Narayan, Charlie Pollock, and Julie Reiber.

In the spirit of connecting local artists and the community, the cast for each reading includes aspiring young actors from the broader South Orange-Maplewood (SOMA) community.  These individuals were cast in their roles after participating in an open casting call.

Since its inception in 2023, the SOMA backStage Reading Series has become a meaningful anchor to the SOPAC season, embodying SOPAC’s commitment to deepening the connection between the community and artists on its stage.  Following each matinee, audience members are invited to stay for a talkback with the writers and creative teams of each new work.  In this space, audience members can share their thoughts on the new performance and be part of the creative process!

“I am excited for SOPAC to bring new works and new artists to our stage,” says Executive Director Lana Rogachevskaya. “SOMA backStage Reading Series gives me, and everyone in the community, a chance to get to know local creative voices from South Orange, Maplewood, and beyond and tell their stories.”


On Friday, May 31 at 7PM and Sunday, June 2 at 3PM, Tony Award nominated writer Kristoffer Diaz (Hell’s Kitchen, Welcome to Arroyo’s, Hercules, Reggie Hoops, and The Unfortunates) will debut his newest play, THINGS WITH FRIENDS, which follows Adele and Burt as they throw a dinner party for their dearest friends.  Simultaneously, the George Washington Bridge and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel have collapsed into their respective rivers.  The steak is on the stove!

The cast for THINGS WITH FRIENDS includes:

  • Two-time Tony Award nominee Kate Baldwin (Hello, Dolly!)
  • Two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz (My Fair Lady)
  • Miguel Cervantes (Hamilton)
  • Mandy Gonzalez (Hamilton)
  • Meghan Kylie Hoey
  • Manu Narayan (Company)

Meghan Kylie Hoey is a young actor from Maplewood who recently graduated from The Boston Conservatory with a BFA in Musical Theater, with an emphasis in Dance.  She was selected for the role of Joony through the open casting call.


SHE REACHED FOR HEAVEN, with music, lyrics, and book by Stephen Schwartz Award winner Oliver Houser and book by Hunter Bird (The Golden Record and The Pansy Craze), debuts on Saturday, June 1 at 3PM and Sunday, June 2 at 7PM.

The musical follows high school junior Jes Holt, who on the outside, is doing everything she is supposed to. On the inside, she has never felt more alone and longs for something she can’t name. But when Jes meets Cody, Jes’s world comes alive. Set against the backdrop of the greatest drug crisis in our country’s history, She Reached for Heaven is an original coming-of-age story about the devastations of addiction, and one woman’s journey to choose life rather than escape it.

The cast for SHE REACHED FOR HEAVEN includes:

  • Antonio Cipriano (Jagged Little Pill)
  • Nick Gaswirth (How to Dance in Ohio)
  • Charlie Pollock (Pretty Woman)
  • Julie Reiber (Jagged Little Pill)
  • Ayla Schwartz (Frozen)
  • Ash Barton
  • Michayla Catron
  • Evan Gray

Ayla Schwartz, Ash Barton, Michayla Catron, and Evan Gray are young actors who won their roles in SHE REACHED FOR HEAVEN from the open casting call.  Barton and Catron are currently students at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

The SOMA backStage Reading Series is the product of SOPAC’s partnership with local theater company SOMA Stage, founded by Creative Community Brain Trust Collaborator Dana Spialter.  The backStage Reading Series provides an opportunity for SOMA-based creatives, both playwrights and actors, to showcase nascent works to the general public.   

“I am so excited to share these exciting new works with the community,” says Spialter.  “This year was extra special, as we specifically chose pieces where we could involve local students in the process.  With the help of casting director and Watchung, NJ resident Daryl Eisenberg, we received hundreds of submissions from New Jersey students and can’t wait to showcase their talent along with our Broadway veterans.  A huge part of SOMA Stage’s mission is to connect the community with our local Broadway performers, and we couldn’t think of a better way to do that than provide the opportunity to work right alongside them.”

All readings in this series are free and open to the public, with a suggested donation of $15.  Advanced registration for tickets is required.

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The South Orange Performing Arts Center offers audiences exhilarating and diverse arts entertainment in its intimate venue, serving as the cultural heartbeat of the greater South Orange/Maplewood region and contributing to the economic and social vibrancy of its highly diverse community.

SOPAC is an accessible cultural destination that presents world-class artists in an intimate and welcoming environment. The Jennifer & Tony Leitner Performance Hall is a 439-seat mainstage theatre with superb acoustics, sight lines and seating. Audiences remark that performances in this space are like having their favorite artists right in their own living room. Artists acknowledge that the atmosphere encourages conversations with audiences. The Loft at SOPAC is a 2,185 square-foot multi-purpose space used for performances, rehearsals, classes, and special events.

The unique architecture of SOPAC’s building, which includes a stunning 3-story glass-enclosed atrium, is also home to the Herb + Milly Iris Gallery. Beyond the building, SOPAC co-produces local events such as South Orange Summer Nights and serves students and schools through its arts education programs.

SOPAC is invested in arts education. SOPAC serves students and schools in our region through a School Performance Series, performing Arts Residencies and annual juried art exhibits entitled INSPIRED MINDS: Young Artist Exhibition and INSPIRING MINDS. SOPAC also collaborates with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts each year to host the Region 5 Poetry Out Loud competitions. The Seton Hall University Arts Council presents a diverse range of events at SOPAC with seasoned professionals, students, and faculty.

Nearly ten years in the making, SOPAC first opened its doors in 2006. South Orange Village Trustees, in partnership with Seton Hall University, envisioned SOPAC as the center of an ambitious redevelopment plan. Through visionary leadership and an unwavering commitment, SOPAC has become a cultural centerpiece for the region, an economic driver for the community, and a catalyst for artistic opportunity.

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