BUYER & CELLARby Jonathan Tolins
AT&T Performing Arts Center
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Directed by Stephen Brackett
Scenic Design by Andrew Boyce
Costume Design by Jessica Pabst
Lighting Design by Eric Southern
Sound Design by Stowe Nelson
Video Projection Design by Alex Koch
Stage Management Hannah Woodward
Company Manager-Drew Blau
Starring Michael Urie
Reviewed Performance: 9/3/2014
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“I felt like a fly getting swatted with back issues of Architectural Digest!”
-Alex Moore, Buyer & Cellar
The chances of achieving true success as an actor are by far one of the most arduous and challenging mountains to reach that precious top. So few are to make it. But to also receive critical acclaim and awards for your work and become a celebrity/star, well those are the trappings of riches for an actor that earns that level of success as a working actor. Many of us who love and work in theater, it is a tough, brutal, cold, world of rejections and closing doors. So many factors go into getting cast. From your looks to who you “know” in the biz, etc., it’s a never ending list of reasons why you were not cast. Thus, many, and I mean many, of us who do work in theater have day jobs just to make the rent. It’s a tough gig. But it’s what we are willing to suffer through just to show a theater full of strangers our love of theater. This not only includes actors, but also, designers, directors, dancers, and choreographers.
So when one of our own within the Dallas-Fort Worth theater community “makes” it, reaching that impossible mountain top, we as a united family beam with pride. Sure, there are those select few who are jealous or resentful. Speaking for myself, I feel great pride at their success because they are from within our close, tight-knit theater family. They are showing the world this is the kind of talent that comes from our own local talent pool.
Some current Dallas/Fort Worth thespians have gone on to achieve major success in various areas of entertainment. Charlie Baker portrayed Skinny Pete in one of television’s biggest hits that was lauded with critical praise, AMC’s Breaking Bad. He also recently had a recurring character in TNT’s Murder in the First. Allison Tolman earned an Emmy nomination this year for Fargo. Brian J. Smith earned a Tony nomination for the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie just this past season. Brian J. Gonzales is currently co-starring in the mega hit musical Aladdin on Broadway. Cedric Neal was part of the original cast of the critically acclaimed Broadway musical About Midnight, and before that was in the Tony award-winning Broadway revival of Porgy & Bess. Liz Mikel was on Broadway a couple of seasons ago with Lysistrata Jones where she earned waves of critical approval. And then there is Michael Urie.
Urie had an almost meteoric rise to fame and acclaim, definitely earning the “getting lightening into a bottle” motto. A Dallas native who attended Plano Senior High School, Urie arrived at Julliard holding a great title under his arms. While in high school he won first place in Dramatic Interpretation at nationals with the National Forensics League.
Once in New York, Urie found film work, including starring in the independent film WTC View in 2005. But when the new ABC comedy Ugly Betty came along, Urie’s life changed forever.
He was cast for a one episode only character, Marc St. James, who was the assistant to the diva villain of the show Wilhelmina Slater, played by Vanessa Williams. The original premise was to have a different assistant hired each week for Slater. But in a one in a million moment, Williams fell so much in love with Urie on their very first episode that they discarded the original idea and cast Urie as a full time regular. The role earned him two Screen Actor Guild nominations, and the show won the 2007 Golden Globe for Best Comedy series. The show became not only a monster hit but earned critical plaudits from the TV critics, many of them pointing out Urie’s work as the scene stealer of the show with his razor sharp comedic talents. Urie was soon seen in all the entertainment magazines, on talk shows, and all over social media. He was officially a break-out star.
In one quick season he became a household name. Urie, however, has that rare quality which is quite touching. He never allows his super success get to his head or ego. So when he was invited to co-host The Column Awards Gala he wonderfully agreed. The Column Awards celebrate and honor excellence in theater within the DFW area, and he was such a hit with the audience, he returned the next year to co-host again. How many stars are willing to do that nowadays?
Urie is a very driven artist, both on and off camera. Besides acting for film and television, he directed and co-starred in the film He’s Way More Famous Than you in 2012 and was executive producer for the TV film House of Kai Milla in 2009. He also served as Co-Director and Executive Producer for the hit documentary, Thank You for Judging which earned Film Festival awards and heaps of critical kudos. For the documentary, Urie went back to his forensic days in high school and followed several Dallas participants who were heading for state. Full Disclosure here: As a past National Forensics League competitor & winner and now a judge, I was honored to be asked to also be interviewed for the documentary.
Urie would return to television co-starring on the short-lived comedy TV series, Partners; it was stuck in the wrong time slot, thus not allowing it to gain an audience. Urie next appeared on The Good Wife among other TV shows. Other films include Petunia, Such Good People, and he lent his voice in Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
But his theater roots kept gnawing on his artistic bones. So, in 2009 he originated the role of Rudi Gernreich in the Off-Broadway hit The Temperamentals, which earned Urie the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk and Theatre World awards, and a Drama League nomination. In 2011 he replaced Christian Borle in the daunting role of Prior Walter in the critically-lavished Off-Broadway smash revival of Angels of America. Urie would make his official Broadway debut in the hit musical revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, replacing another Dallas native, Christopher Hanke. Urie took the role of Bud Frump at the same time teen idol Nick Jonas (yet another Texas native) was taking over the lead. Then in 2013 a new play, Buyer & Cellar, came to his attention.
Just like in Ugly Betty, Urie was originating a new role, only this time it was a one-man play. Written by Jonathan Tolins, it’s a ninety minute piece in which he portrays various characters. When the play opened Off-Broadway, Urie, Tolins and Director Stephen Brackett were not ready for the successful avalanche this play would achieve. New York critics offered bouquets of accolades and kudos to the production & especially on Urie’s work as an actor. Before you knew it, every celebrity you could think of were in the audience. When I interviewed Urie at his hotel Monday evening, I asked which stars had attended, and my jaw fell to the floor. Everyone from Stephen Sondheim, James Franco, the late Joan Rivers (who came twice), to Jane Fonda, Val Kilmer, Jane Lynch, and more had seen the show. When New York awards season arrived that year, Urie received the Drama Desk Award, Clarence Derwent Award, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show, and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Awards. Tolins’s work earned the Best Unique Theatrical Experience by the Off-Broadway Alliance when it premiered at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
Before you knew it, Buyer & Cellar was extended again and again, which is unheard of for plays in New York, much less a one-man show. Other than Billy Crystal and John Legazamo, not many actors can wear that kind of crown, Urie could and did.
Who knows why, but plays hardly go on national tours these days. Some say it’s due to the cold, brutal fact that musicals outsell plays five to one, or that you need a “name” above the title to sell a play to make it on the road. Back in the 90s, Dallas Summer Musicals had a Fall Broadway series that brought the national tours of Proof, The Graduate, starring Morgan Fairchild, and Tallulah, starring Kathleen Turner. That series is long gone, but AT&T Performing Arts Center thankfully brought in recent years the national tours of the Tony Award-winning plays, War Horse and Osage: August County.
And now AT&T PAC has done it again. A play that has received rapturous kudos from NY critics and audiences and starring the actor who originated the role – well, how many plays like that come to Dallas? Urie must have the theater gods in his pocket as several producers approached him to take Buyer & Cellar on a national tour, and it has played to sold out houses since and now arrives here in Dallas. This stop of the tour will also serve as a homecoming for Urie, returning to his home town to perform in the very play that made him the toast of New York.
As a critic/audience member, when I attend a play, musical or movie that has received major critical recognition and is the talk of social media, I always hope it will meet the hype. I have seen theater productions that had critics and other people posting endless words of praise and kudos. Then I see the show and it doesn’t even come close to matching all that hype that was splattered all over social media. Buyer & Cellar not only matches all the hype, it surpasses it.
In this piece we meet Alex Moore, a struggling actor from Wisconsin looking for work either offstage or on. He’s recently lost his job at Disneyland (the reason is a side-splitting tale), but through a friend he gets a job working in the basement mall that belongs to one of the true legends of film/stage/TV/music - Babs Streisand! True fact - Streisand is a great lover of design and has collected so much stuff in her illustrious career that she had built on to her Malibu estate an actual underground "shopping mall" where she stores all the stuff she's saved over the years. She even wrote a coffee table book titled My Passion for Design, and served as principal photographer. This book serves as a focal reference for Alex and for the play itself. While working all alone in this massive mall, Alex meets the Oscar-winning legend and a friendship begins to blossom…or does it?
In Buyer & Cellar, Jonathan Tolins has a fresh, vivid, often hilarious way of writing that explodes with humor and heartfelt compassion. One of the best elements is how the transitions ebb effortlessly throughout. As one actor has to play several characters, Tolins smartly wrote dialogue that allows the characters to flow in and out of scenes with ease and finesse. His comedy is devoid of TV sitcom or rom-com humor. The jokes and one- liners pop like a jack in the box, not only surprising the audience but slaying them in laughter. Tolins then deftly knows where to insert more personal, quite emotional, powerful dramatic scenes that tug at your heart. If is VERY clear Tolins did his research on Babs. No surprise here, I have every biography, every movie and every CD that Streisand has done. And for those of us who worship at the Babs altar, Tolins sprinkles the play with great facts and actual events, with great inside jokes in some scenes. It’s as though Tolins hid Easter eggs for the die-hard Babs fans to find in his play. The piece never sags or loses focus. It takes the audience on a journey overflowing in hysterical dialogue, but also balances the piece with equal amounts of dramatic conflict for Alex. There are several scenes further in the play that are so profound that has Alex in pathos of pain that has the audience in hush silence, eyes, ears, and heart glued to the stage.
Andrew Boyce’s blinding white set looks like a bigger-than-life diorama. Slick and clean, with beams above to represent the roof, dead center is big blank wall onto which Alex Koch projects his video designs. They never steal attention from the actor but instead enhance the scenes and help with several transitions. Eric Southern’s lighting design stays primarily one color but allows the lighting’s intensity and angled precision glow with outstanding results. Kudos also go to Stowe Nelson’s exquisite sound design that complemented the play, such the sounds of party guests in one scene, Alex’s Jetta, the gates to Bab’s mansion.
All of these design elements and a first rate script is any director’s great wish, and Stephen Brackett had those wishes fulfilled and then some. With just one actor, he allows the staging and blocking to have powerful subtext. See if you catch the subtext within the blocking and staging from the first scene to the final; the sum is a great moment in live theater magic. With pristine direction, Brackett finds the various levels of emotion within the script were to make the blocking stay in sync with the emotion. He also does this when a comedic or dramatic pause is needed, or to add meaty weight to a line or word. He enhances each special, separate, yet very intimate blocking or staging for the audience to take in and relish. His direction is flawless.
Many of today’s TV and film stars are not trained in theater; they only had to work for a camera. To tackle live theater, most stars of celluloid and video would check themselves into rehab in total fear of being onstage. It takes a rare creature to tackle the stage. Michael Urie’s background began in theater, and I feel this is what has made this play the monster hit it has become.
I’ve seen Urie’s work only in film and TV, so this was a very special treat. Urie possesses an astounding stage presence and has that rare ability to hold an entire audience’s attention for over ninety minutes. Not for a second does his stage presence lose intensity or energy. This gifted actor portrays an array of various characters, without the use of a different costume piece or wig change. Instead he relies only on his body, face and voice to magically create other flesh and blood characters. With the speed of a finger snap he changes into his boyfriend Barry or Sally (Babs’ assistant), and then into Babs herself. It is a feat in which no actor can succeed without the kind of talent Urie possesses.
His comedy craft should be studied; it’s as though his comedic chops come from an unknown planet where the greatest comedians in the entertainment world exist. Urie has the gift, period. He knows exactly where to add a vocal inflection, facial expression or pause to produce the loudest laughs possible; all evening long he had the audience in the palm of his hand, laughing loudly over and over again. And you do not have to be a Streisand fan to get the jokes - trust me, you will!
In the play, Urie as Alex has several lengthy conversations with the other characters, and like Houdini, he becomes a ping pong ball, going back and forth, switching character voices and his physicality in a flash. It is in the second half of the piece that Urie’s character travels down a painful, hurtful and heartbreaking road involving both his relationship with his lover Barry and Streisand. As though wearing an emotional Technicolor Dreamcoat, he shows with organic honesty various levels of painful emotion, an deeper, darker, dramatic shades of color within his characterization. He has no problems whatsoever swimming in those dramatic waters.
This play is a banquet feast for any actor, and Urie devours the piece whole. It’s like watching a chameleon change colors, depending on where it’s at. Urie delivers a sensational performance that will stick in your mind way after the curtain call. It backs up all the hype and acclaim and is a production and a performance that won’t be forgotten in years to come.
It’s such a rare opportunity to see the actor who originated the role in a theater piece, and these will be the final performances for Urie in the national tour. The production plans to continue with a new actor, which allows Urie to end his long, successful journey with the play in his hometown. He will next open the play in a couple of months in London.
Buyer & Cellar is covered in laughter and even some tears. Babs has not seen it, but if she did she would love every second of it! I bet she would reach with both of her hands with those famous nails, cup Michael Urie’s face and say “Hello Gorgeous!” So will you!
You will NOT want to miss this production. Who knows, you might find a doll that Babs owns named Fifi available for purchase! You have to see the play to get that reference!
It was so perfect that for Urie’s entrance as Alex into the stage lights Streisand’s major hit “The Way We Were” plays in the background. It had a double meaning at Wednesday’s opening night. Not only to serve as the intro into Alex’s world and story, but also for Urie returning home to perform in a play that allowed him to make his mark in New York theater. Babs sings, “Memories, like the corners of my mind.” The audience gave Urie a prolonged thunderous applause, and you could hear Urie’s voice slightly crack from holding back the tears. It was a very magical moment to begin the evening.
I cannot see any other actor tackling this role other than Urie. So like finding a golden ticket that Willie Wonka has buried, you have three more chances to grab those golden tickets and catch this once in a lifetime performance from our hometown family member. Welcome home Michael!
Dallas City Performance Hall
AT&T Performing Arts Center Off-Broadway Series
**LIMITED RUN: September 4th, 5th, 6th at 8:00 pm, and September 6th at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $35.00 - $65.00.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to http://www.attpac.org/on-sale/2014/buyer-and-cellar/
Official website: http://www.buyerandcellar.com/
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