Friday, April 24, 2015

reviews - BUYER & CELLAR - Phoenix Theatre

Toby Yatso
(Photo: Erin Evangeline Photography)
"“First, we need to get something straight,” actor Toby Yatso tells us the moment he enters the stage at Phoenix Theatre.  “This is a work of fiction.”  The work is Buyer & Cellar, an acclaimed Off-Broadway, one-man comedy by Jonathan Tolins that presents a realistic setting then creates a fictional account of what might have happened had certain elements fallen into place, and it’s uproarious. Toby plays Alex, an out of work actor. In 2010 Barbra Streisand wrote a coffee table book called "My Passion for Design".  It explained in thorough detail the work that went into the look of her Malibu home, with particular attention paid to the basement.  As a way of housing all of Miss Streisand’s massive collection of dolls, clothes and various other objects acquired over a lifetime of being at the top of her game for most of her professional life, she designed an arcade of shops and stores in order to have everything on permanent display instead of hiding the collectibles in boxes or hanging the clothes in closets. “She built a shopping mall in her basement,” Alex declares.  Alex’s job is to be the sole mall employee, a solitary retail clerk in a basement arcade, dusting the collectibles, polishing the tables and tending to the customers, except there are no customers; there’s just Barbra Streisand.  Toby’s illustration of Miss Streisand is not so much an impression. Instead, he affects movements – a side glance, a shrug, a finger flick of the hair – all suggesting the performer’s presence, supported by a change of accent.  On loan from his independently minded Stray Cat Theatre, director Ron May brings that required expertise of knowing only too well the pitfalls, the challenges and the unusual demands of single-handedly carrying a complete production without intermission.  Watching Toby as Alex express the feeling of sheer joy when singing with Barbra Streisand as they rehearse moments from Gypsy in the basement is priceless.  With animated movements and an energy that never quits, Toby fleshes out Tolins’ script to the degree where promises of a performance only glimpsed in previous productions are here fully delivered. He engages from the moment he enters right up until the final fade out.  And it’s not just the humor that works.  Writer Tolins also touches on the issue of loneliness and the inability to ever achieve perfection, and it’s Toby’s talent that makes those topics almost tangible. As presented at Phoenix Theatre under Ron May’s experienced eye, both the play and Toby Yatso are quite remarkable." -David Appleford, Valley Screen and Stage (click here to read the complete review)

"Jonathan Tolins' one man play Buyer & Cellar takes a brief passage in a design book written by megastar Barbra Streisand and turns them into a humorous and touching 100 minutes of pure joy. The play had a healthy Off-Broadway run, and Phoenix Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of the comedy in a tightly directed production with a spirited performance by Toby Yatso.  The book Streisand wrote is called "My Passion for Design," which goes into elaborate detail about the making of her palatial Malibu estate. Buried in the middle of the book is a mention of the "shopping mall" she had built in the basement of her barn to house her vast collection of collectibles. Tolins used those few sentences as a springboard to fabricate the tale of struggling, out of work actor Alex More who ends up getting a job managing the series of stores.  At first Alex is unsure of what to do in his new job, so he patiently cleans and organizes the items, waiting for Streisand to show up to look at her belongings. When she finally makes her way down into the basement, and after looking around for a few minutes at the many items she has collected throughout her life, she comments to More, "you have nice things." The look that More gives her and the laughs that come from the audience make you realize two things. First, that Tolins has found a perfect tale to portray the eccentricities of a celebrity like Streisand, but one that also shows her vulnerability, loneliness and insecurities. And second, that Yatso's skilled acting abilities are a perfect match for the six characters in the play, with each role receiving a refined sense of individuality.  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 what he has written for Streisand to say. He is able to take the public knowledge of her and create an evening that is both funny and emotional. Tolins has many plot points build throughout the play and there is also a bit about a throw pillow that has a nice pay off as well as a hilarious sequence involving a coupon.  Yatso is More but he also plays all the 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 Yatso is completely natural in the way that he easily navigates between them, especially in the numerous conversations they have with each other. Yatso's channeling of Streisand is more than just a simple impression or imitation. While his take on Barbra may border a bit too close to the line of caricature, especially with his overly thick Brooklyn accent, he still manages a lot with just a simple facial expression, a dramatic pause between sentences, the specific pronunciation of a word, and his continually moving hand that sweeps Streisand's imaginary long hair off his forehead with Barbra's infamous long fingernails. In doing so, he fully embodies her and at the end of the evening it feels like she was there on stage and we got a glimpse into the mind of this mega celebrity.  Director Ron May does an exceptional job of not only getting such an amazing performance out of Yatso, but also in his ability to stage the entire play on a set with just a few chairs and a table to portray multiple locations. The only downside is that there are numerous and slightly lengthy musical interludes between a few scenes that stop the momentum of the play. Buyer & Cellar is a touching yet rollicking good time with an amazing performance by Yatso at the center. While it may run about five or 10 minutes too long, with a few similar situations repeated to get the point across that really don't have to be, it is 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." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"Barbra Streisand's 2010 coffee-table book "My Passion for Design" offered fans a glimpse inside her opulent yet exquisitely tasteful Malibu manse. One revelation especially intrigued playwright Jonathan Tolins. Beneath the estate's idyllic New England-style red barn, the superstar singer has constructed a private shopping mall. Tolins imagined Buyer & Cellar, a one-man show about a struggling LA actor hired to watch over the treasures (and man the frozen-yogurt machine) in Babs' basement.... starring Toby Yatso in a role that suits his signature boyish charm and good-natured snark to a T.  Yatso, under the direction of Ron May, serves this pop-culture confection with breezy confidence, switching gears among a half-dozen characters and throwing in hilarious mini-impersonations along the way. The biggest surprise in Buyer & Cellar is that it isn't just frothy fun. As the play's prologue painstakingly disclaims, the Barbra Streisand imagined by Tolins is a fictional one, but she is much more than a caricature, and by the time the comedy reaches its bittersweet denouement, Yatso has completed an affecting portrait of a woman who has achieved her every dream yet remains heartbreakingly unfulfilled. " -Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic (click here to read the complete review)

"Toby Yatso is phenomenal in his one-act tour de force performance as Alex More, a starstruck aspiring actor, in Phoenix Theatre's current production of Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar, directed by Ron May.  The star with whom More is struck is Barbra Streisand, who beyond her singing prowess, is a devotee to architecture and the author of "My Passion for Design", which, thankfully for Mr. Tolins, is a trove of revelations about Babs and her tastes.  As Mr. Yatso affirms at the onset of his marathon conversation with the audience, there's no truth to the story. That is, the audience needs to know that none of the things to be portrayed happened. It's a fiction. Yet, truths abound in this play on celebrity and vulnerability and conceits and aspiration.  You know that there can be only one buyer in the self-indulgent museum of collectibles, and More anxiously awaits her arrival. When she finally appears, the bargaining commences, and so too, the evolution of their relationship up to and including, yes, a collaboration around the reprise of Gypsy!  As their relationship evolves, Mr. Yatso, with his trademark versatility and physicality, navigates from one voice to another, from one persona to another, not imitating Ms. Streisand but capturing her sense and sensibilities and familiar gestures, evoking an immensely curious but engaging relationship.   If there is a revelatory moment in this play that clutches at the mind and heart, it is the brilliantly crafted exposition on beauty, vanity, and aspiration, as Barbra is asked what wish she'd want fulfilled. It is in her answer and Alex's response that, among the fictions and the collectibles, the point of this play is finely etched. Oh, to be beautiful! Really?  It may take a while until Alex accepts that he has been "too long at the fair." He is summarily dismissed from his position. Yet, at play's end, Alex More enjoys his own sweet victory, Mr. Yatso has claimed the role as his own, and the audience is exhilarated and inspired." -Herbert Paine, Broadway World (click here to read the complete review)

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