Monday, July 29, 2013

theatre review BUYER & CELLAR, Off Broadway, July 1

The new one man play Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins takes a few sentences in a design book written by megastar Barbra Streisand and turns it into a humorous and touching 100 minutes of pure joy.   The play had a limited Off Broadway run last Spring before moving to a now open ended run at another Off Broadway theatre.

The book Streisand wrote is called My Passion for Design, which goes into elaborate detail about the making of her palatial Malibu home.  However, buried in the middle of the book is a small part where she mentions the "shopping mall" she has in the basement to house her numerous collection of various vintage clothes, antique dolls and other items.  Tolins used those few sentences as a springboard to fabricate the tale of struggling and out of work actor Alex More who ends up getting a job as the person who manages the series of "stores" that Streisand has built.  A series of stores that she is the only "shopper" at.

Michael Urie
At first More is unsure of what to do as he patiently cleans and organizes Streisand's vast personal collection of things waiting for Streisand to show up to look at her belongings.  When Streisand finally makes her way down into the basement, in character as if to test More, and after looking around for a few minutes, she comments "you have nice things."   The look that More gives her and the laughs that come from the audience make you realize that Tolins has found a perfect tale to portray the eccentricities of a celebrity but one that also shows her vulnerability as well. 

Tolins has written fully fleshed out characters of both More and Streisand that dive well below the superficial level of their shared interest of her "belongings" and into the past and present of each character.  His dialogue is direct and clear and concise, especially with what he has written for Streisand to say.  He is able to take the public knowledge of her and fashion an evening that is both funny and emotional in the connection that he shows Streisand having with the man who works in her basement mall.   That connection is fashioned by Tolins into a very touching and emotional one, one that, as Tolins writes it, you can easily imagine a big star like Streisand easily having with someone like More.  Of course, the character of Streisand is clearly in control, especially when she asks More to stay late one night as she is having guests over.  At first Alex things he is inviting her over to mingle with her celebrity friends, but she is only asking him to work late in case any of them want to come downstairs for frozen yogurt from the food court section of the mall.   Tolins has many plot points build throughout the play and there is also a nice bit about a throw pillow that has a nice built up toward the end.

Michael Urie is More but he also plays several other characters, including his boyfriend, Streisand's housekeeper and Streisand herself.  Every one of these characters gets their own personal voice, style and mannerisms and Urie is simply stunning in his ability to portray each of them uniquely which also seems so natural in the way that he easily navigates between them, especially in the numerous conversations they have with each other.

Urie's channeling of Streisand is more than just a simple impression or imitation.  And while he never fully takes on her voice or even makes any attempt to look like her, he manages a lot with just a simple facial expression, a pause between words or the pronunciation of a word.   In doing so, he actually embodies her and at the end of the evening you actually feel like she was there on stage and that you got to see a glimpse into the mind of this mega celebrity.

Director Stephen Brackett does an exceptional job in not only getting such an amazing performance out of Urie, but in also the ability to stage the entire play on a very small set with just a few set pieces but make it seem like the numerous locations of the play.  Scenic designer Andrew Boyce has fabricated a simple white set and lighting designer Eric Southern adds some creative projections and a lovely and colorful lighting plot to easily portray the various locals of the play.

Tolins' play is a touching yet rollicking good time with an amazing performance at the center.  While it may run about 5 or 10 minutes too long, with a few similar situations repeated to get the point across that really don't have to be, it it still effective.  It doesn't mock or ridicule Streisand, but instead paints her as an extremely wealthy, yet somewhat lonely person who just happens to have a lot of stuff that she wants to have on display to see.  If you think of all of the things you might own that are packed up in boxes in your basement, it does seem much more logical to have them on display, even if that means you have to build a mall in your basement like Streisand did.

Official Show Site

Theater Talk interview with Tolins and Urie:

Friday, July 19, 2013

theatre review PIPPIN, Broadway, June 27

The Broadway revival of Pippin has received numerous accolades including getting great reviews and winning four Tony's including the one for best musical revival.  While the book of the show still leads a little to be desired, the pop-rock score by Stephen Schwartz is wonderful, including several showstoppers and the direction from Diane Paulus expertly combines a circus theme with the story of a young man on a quest to find himself.  Originally conceived by composer Schwartz as a college musical, this is the first Broadway revival the production has had since the long running original production closed in June of 1977 after running for over four and a half years.

Patina Miller as The Leading Player
The story of the show focuses on a group of performers, overseen by a leading player who serves as the master of ceremonies, who tell the tale of naive young prince Pippin, who has returned home after getting his education.  His father, the King Charlemagne, has married a much younger wife Fastrada and her son Lewis has already taken his place in Charlemagne's army. Pippin, not sure how he can prove himself, believes that going to battle will do just that, and so begins the first of many quests for Pippin to find his way in life. Along his journey he finds art, religion, has lots of mindless sex that leaves him empty and unfulfilled, meets up with his grandmother who gives him some wise advice as well as encounters a young widow and her son.

Terrence Mann and Mathew James Thomas
In the middle of all of this, when the Leading Player suggests that perhaps Pippin try to go against the tyrant that his father has become, this forces Fastrada to concoct a plan that she believes will make her son the King.  But all plans don't exactly go the way as planned including when you have a group of performers enacting a story that if they happen to not like the way it is going may just decide to make changes to the plot themselves. This only frustrates the Leading Player who is trying to steer Pippin to a spectacular finale that is the ultimate sacrifice, something that Pippin is unsure he is prepared to do.

It is an interesting story about a young man on the search for his purpose in life, a life where living in a castle and being wealthy may not be what is best but instead a life of modesty and simple joys.  It is a simple and often told tale but director Paulus has enveloped it within a circus tent that explodes with acrobats, tumblers, trapeze artists, dancers and other magical moments that elevate this simple tale into one of mystery, suspense and pure enjoyment.

Andrea Martin and Matthew James Thomas
At the center of the show is Patina Miller as the Leading Player, a role usually played by a man and originated by Ben Vereen in the 1972 Broadway production.  Miller, like Vereen, won a Tony for her performance and she is stellar in the role.  Singing and dancing up a storm with both comical and serious sides to her character.  She is both sexual and sweet and also nice and yet intimidating and disturbing too.   Matthew James Thomas is Pippin.  He is tall and handsome yet somewhat nerdy and awkward as well.  He has a lovely singing voice and does a find job in taking us along on Pippin's journey of self discovery. 

Also in the cast are real life husband and wife Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise as Charlemagne and Fastrada.  Both are excellent in their supporting parts with Mann a forceful but fun King and d'Amboise perfect as the conniving second wife who dances up a storm.  Andrea Martin is Berthe, Pippin's grandmother who stops the show with her first act solo "No Time at All."   Martin won her well deserved second Tony for her performance.  Rachel Bay Jones is Catherine, the young widow that Pippin meets who makes him realize the possibilities of a simple life.  She is earthy and charming but also very funny and touching.  The ensemble is comprised of many members of the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main and each one is given a moment or two to shine as well as is incorporated effectively and seemlessly into the story.

Paulus' direction moves the show along at a quick clip but also allows the right amount of time for the circus choreography and acrobatics by Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider to perfectly interweave with the score and book by Roger O. Hirson.  The way the main cast is interwoven into some of the circus acts by Snider is also extremely dazzling and extra special as you feel that even these non circus performers have risen to almost the same level that the circus trained ones in the cast are at.  The original Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and a few of Fosse's signature dances from that production are incorporated as well.  Scenic design by Scott Pask combines vibrant colors all set under a Big Top Tent that becomes even more magical at the very end of the show when it transforms into something else entirely.  Costume design by Dominique Lemieux perfectly combines the colorful circus theme with the required sensual and serious elements of the plot.

Is Pippin a perfect show?  No.  But it is one with many magical and memorable moments and when combined with Paulus' re-energizing of the material with her circus theme it elevates it into a joyful and dazzling experience of a story of self discovery that is truly not to be missed. 

Official Show Site

Highlights from this production:

2013 Tony performance:

"Simple Joys" performed on the David Letterman Show:

"On the Right Track" performed on The View:

"Magic to Do" music video with scenes from the recording of the cast album:

Cast rehearsal clips and interviews with the cast and creative team: