Verklempt with laughter: Urie shines in Buyer & Cellar

Buyer 2
In Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar, Michael Urie plays unemployed actor Alex More, who gets a prime gig watching the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement. The one-man show is at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season. Photos by Joan Marcus

Michael Urie is so freaking charming it’s outrageous. The erstwhile scene-stealer from “Ugly Betty” landed in a one-man off-Broadway hit more than a year ago, and he’s had the good sense to take this show – the perfect showcase for his prodigious talents – on the road, just like the big stars of yesteryear used to do.

The play is Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins, a fantasia on Barbra Streisand, which is to say an examination of fame, wealth, creativity and loneliness, among other things. It’s a fascinating play with deep wells of compassion for the rich and famous and for the poor and ignored.

But perhaps above all else, it’s funny. Really funny. It feels so good to be in such reliable company as Urie, Tolins and director Stephen Brackett, all of whom take good care of the audience. Everything is carefully calibrated to allow us to relax into the situation as Urie begins the 100-minute play in a very self-effacing way, endearing himself to the audience and ensuring us that what we’re about to see is purely a work of fiction inspired by something almost too strange too be true but that is in fact, the truth.

In her 2010 coffee table book My Passion for Design, Streisand details the labor of love (and frustration) that is her own personal utopia: her Malibu compound where she lives with husband James Brolin. They live in one of the houses, and the other (aside from the rustic barn with the watermill) is a showcase for Streisand’s almost OCD-like enthusiasm for American art and architecture. In the basement of that house is a warren of “shops” Streisand designed to hold her vast collections of dolls, antiques, clothing and the like.

Buyer 1

Into this odd subterranean world comes Urie’s Alex More, an unemployed actor who has just been fired from a gig in Disneyland. His charge is to manage the inventory and deal with this one and only “customer” ie Streisand.

Playing all the parts on an elegant white (or is it putty or linen or putty-linen?) set by Andrew Boyce accented by sharp projections and color shifts by Alex Koch’s projection design and Eric Southern’s lights, Urie is laser-sharp with each expertly delineated persona. He’s Sharon, Streisand’s estate manager, Brolin (hilariously so) and Barry, Alex’s screenwriter boyfriend. But most impressively, he’s Alex, a smart, fidgety guy who fights cynicism. And of course he’s Streisand, that enigmatic bundle of contradictions – ugly/beautiful, insecure/ultra-confident, indescribably popular/incredibly lonely.

Urie doesn’t do a Streisand imitation so much as he creates an odd character. With his slightly twisted body (butt sticking out, shoulders slightly hunched, expressive hands tipped with invisible long nails) and deep, nasal, Brooklyn-twang voice, his Barbra is distinct and, at times, resembles a modified version of the Elephant Man as played by Marlon Brando (oh, if such a thing could only have come to pass). If that sounds weird, it is, but then again Streisand’s interaction with Alex is weird.

She appears as a “customer” in a doll “shop” haggling over a French doll that blows bubbles. Alex, with his improv comedy training, rises to the challenge but won’t back down on the arbitrary price he sets. Somehow, this both frustrates and intrigues Streisand, and their relationship is launched.

The scenes in which Streisand, calling herself Sadie, interacts with Alex in the shop take on an almost surreal Beckettian quality. How strange is it that this wealthy woman is “shopping” in her own basement, dealing with a “salesman” on her payroll and attempting to buy a doll she already owns. Talk about the warped nature of capitalism.

But then Alex and Barbra become chummy, which is always dangerous for the non-celebrity in the relationship. Streisand’s quirks are on full display here (the evisceration of her movie The Mirror Has Two Faces is incredibly pointed), but so is her intelligence, enthusiasm and passionate drive to create. It’s easy to make fun of someone like Streisand, whose heart and ego are out there for all to see, but Tolins doesn’t take cheap shots. He’s clearly well versed in all things Barbra, and his deconstruction of the superstar is done with insight as well as affection.

The wonders of Urie cannot be overstated. He’s warm, funny, smart and incredibly dynamic. He finds moments and beats in the script that just keep elevating the show until you don’t think it could possibly be funnier or more enjoyable. On stage he’s able to show much more range and depth than he ever got to display on “Ugly Betty,” and he’s a revelation. Buyer & Cellar is a wonderful play made all the better for finding its perfect star.

[bonus interview]
I sat down with Michael Urie to talk about Buyer & Cellar for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar continues through Aug. 31 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $60-$100. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

On the radio: Streisand and Streep

Streisand Streep

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in the studio with Chloe Veltman, host of the KALW radio show “Voicebox.” Our topic of the evening was singing actresses. More specifically, we discussed the staggering talents of Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep, both of whom apply their prodigious acting skills to some marvelous song performances. Of course Streisand is as well known as a singer as she is an actress, but Streep is full of wonderful surprises as a singer.

Ann Hampton Callaway - Bill Westmoreland photoJoining us on the phone from New York for the show was the remarkably eloquent Ann Hampton Callaway (seen at right; photo by Bill Westmoreland), a singer and songwriter of note who also happens to have penned some tunes for Streisand (including the beautiful song “I’ve Dreamed of You,” which Streisand sang at her wedding to James Brolin).

Callaway brings her show of songs from the Streisand songbook to the San Francisco Symphony’s “Summer and the Symphony” season on Tuesday, July 3. Tickets are $15-$80 and available at or 415-864-6000.

There are several ways to listen to the “Voicebox” show called “Barbra & Meryl.” You can visit the “Voicebox” media page (click here) and scroll down to the “Listen Now” box on the bottom right. Click on “Barbra & Meryl.”
Or you can download the show for free as a podcast on iTunes. Just search for “Voicebox.” (or click here)

[bonus videos]

Here’s my favorite Meryl Streep vocal performance. It’s Shel Silverstein’s “I’m Checkin’ Out” from Postcards from the Edge.

Now here’s the song Ann Hampton Callaway wrote for Barbra Streisand’s wedding to James Brolin (the performance is from the 2000 Timeless tour; the Spanish subtitles are a bonus). The Callaway lyrics are set to a melody by Rolf Lovland.

Miss Coco Peru puts the gun of peace to our heads

Clinton Leupp doesn’t pretend to be a girl. He’s a man in a dress with a drag alter-ego named Coco Peru. He’s very much a man and very much Coco – two personalities for the price of one. Now that’s value for your entertainment dollar in this economically unsteady world.

Leupp brought Coco to the Bay Area three years ago and performed Miss Coco Peru Is Undaunted at the New Conservatory Theatre. Now he’s making his Rrazz Room debut in Ugly Coco, which opened Wednesday, Oct. 15 and continues through Nov. 2 in the posh cabaret venue.

Before heading to San Francisco from the Los Angeles area home he shares with Rafael, his partner of 13 years, Leupp described himself as something of a political performer.

“It’s not that I’m overtly political,” he says, “it’s just that I’m saying things I’ve always wanted to say. I try and do it in a subtle, entertaining way. I think people will appreciate it, especially women. Sometimes drag makes women feel uncomfortable, but women are turned on to this show. That’s one thing I’ve gotten through my career. Women tell me they don’t usually like drag, but they like Coco.”

And what’s not to like about Coco? She’s a trim and pretty redhead, her big blue eyes set off by a prim, bouncy Marlo-Thomas-as-“That Girl” flip. She does her own singing (to recorded tracks), she delves into spiritual matters and curses like a sailor.

In Ugly Coco, before the first number (Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field’s “Nobody Does It Like Me” from the Broadway show Seesaw), he has charmed the audience completely and uttered a four-letter word that rhymes with “runt.” Twice.

The concept for this particular show came from an unpleasant real-life experience. One evening, watching “Ugly Betty” on TV, Leupp saw an autobiographical story from his last show unfolding on the small screen.

“That has happened to me three or four times,” Leupp says. “People in Hollywood say, `That’s egotistical. These things happen.’ Yeah, over and over again. After this one, I decided no, I’m talking about this, and it has been liberating. That’s where the title, `Ugly Coco,’ comes in. You steal from me, I’ll steal from you.”

Much of Ugly Coco is devoted to finding some sort of balance in life – balance amid all the struggle and ugliness. Somehow, Coco emerges as a savior. She calls herself “Drag Queen Jesus” and through various means – including the shimmy – she aims to help people find their inner drag queen. If you can transform the outer, she posits, you can transform the inner.

“One thing I’ve learned doing drag,” Leupp says, “is that people respect courage. Growing up in the Bronx, when I discovered the balls to do this, that’s when people in the old neighborhood started to respect me. People who never spoke to me would say hey on the street.”

So Coco, that misanthropic spiritual adviser (“You know what I hate about reality? People.”) swears she is going to save people, “even if I have to hold a f—–g gun to their heads.”

With her self-described “low-level drag queen celebrity,” Miss Coco has never the less taken Leupp on quite a journey. In the new show he talks about being an ostracized kid who would rather go to Radio City to see the movie version of Mame than go to Yankee Stadium.

Years later, he would be able to count Bea Arthur, whom little Leupp adored on the giant Radio City screen singing “The Man in the Moon ,” as a good friend and the person who introduced him to the joys of sushi. Coco talks about that in the show as well as a fantasy helicopter ride over Manhattan with another famous chum, Liza Minnelli, who also took him backstage to meet Barbra Streisand after a Madison Square Garden concert.

Leupp really is an actor inhabiting a character. He calls himself a drag queen, which is certainly true, but there’s more to Coco than that. She’s acerbic and outspoken and hilarious, and Leupp’s comic delivery is flawless.

Leupp pays homage to drag performers who came before him, including Charles Busch and Charles Pierce, but says he’s the first drag queen he knew of who delivered serious monologues amid all the quippy lines and belted songs.

“I love drag queens in bars – they can be very entertaining,” Leupp says. “But I knew I didn’t want to be in a bar setting. I trained to be an actor. I wanted to be in a theater doing something that was different. That’s what got me noticed in the beginning. I was a drag queen telling autobiographical stories, some of which were even moving. I was vulnerable on stage. Most people expect a drag queen to be sarcastic, bitter and mean to the audience. I wanted to go beyond that.”

In Ugly Coco, Leupp definitely takes Coco beyond that. When he delves into stories of childhood pain – being shunned at church, tortured at school – there’s real ache. And even though Coco ends up bitter more often than enlightened, she just can’t remain cynical or bitter, try as she might.

Listen to Coco sing “Moon River” to her tormented younger self and you’ll hear the pain and triumph of maturity.

Leupp is doing edgy, thought-provoking things with Miss Coco. Audiences show up for the drag queen thing – comedy, songs, bitterness – and come away with a whole lot more. This is edgy, interesting theater. Coco Peru is pretty and profane and – not to get too high and mighty about it – profound.

Ugly Coco continues through Nov. 2 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit

Now here’s a sneak peek of Coco in Ugly Coco.

Like buttah

Read our music critic Jim Harrington’s excellent review of the Streisand concert here.

At first, Barbra Streisand was the kooky kid with the voice. Then she was an Academy Award winner and a box-office sensation. By the time she was a mother, feminist, activist and superstar, Streisand was already a legend.

But what does a legend do to remain legendary? In Streisand’s case, you pull away from the limelight. You still crank out albums to meet your recording obligations. You make (or direct) the occasional movie. And you raise money for the Democrats.

And then, if you’re really lucky (and want to work your butt off), you decide to make sure they know you’ve still got it. You go on tour — maybe two or three times because saying goodbye takes a long time — and you blow people’s minds.

That’s what Streisand did Monday night at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. As she nears the end of her farewell tour, her voice is a little ragged, but such an extraordinary instrument can stand a few rough spots and still soar.

Monday’s show was, like all the others before it, very nearly Barbra unplugged — just her and a 54-piece orchestra. No video montages, no fancy sets. There was a guest (the operatic quartet Il Divo), but they were basically back-up boys.

Barbra fans such as myself were in heaven. The only downside was toward the beginning of the show when Streisand came out singing “Starting Here, Starting Now.” I whooped and hollered to make sure Barbra knew I was there (after spending $350 she perhaps should have tossed me one of her earrings). And the older lady sitting in front of me, apparently not at all pleased by my volume, turned around with her pinched little face and actually wagged her finger at me.

But nothing could dim my enthusiasm. This was relaxed Barbra, happy Barbra (her men and women took the House and the Senate last week, and she’s positively aglow). And most importantly from the Theater Dogs point of view, this was show tune Barbra.

Here are the theater songs she performed in San Jose: “Starting Here, Starting Now” (Starting Here, Starting Now Maltby/Shire), “Come Rain or Come Shine” (St. Louis Woman Arlen/Mercer), “The Music of the Night” (The Phantom of the Opera, Lloyd Webber/Hart), “Unusual Way” (Nine Yeston), “Carefully Taught” and “Cockeyed Optimist” (South Pacific, Rodgers/Hammerstein), “Children Will Listen” (Into the Woods, Sondheim), “Somewhere” (West Side Story, Berstein/Sondheim) and a whole heap of songs from Funny Girl (Styne/Merrill): “The Music that Makes Me Dance,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People” from the Broadway show and “Funny Girl” and “My Man” from the movie.

In the Q&A when she read from notecards submitted by audience members, Streisand was prompted to say, “Shoot the swans? Dese lovelies?” from Funny Girl, and she recalled getting a voice lesson in San Francisco after losing her voice during a gig at the hungry i. She said the voice loss was psychological prompted by someone asking her how she held her notes so long. “I don’t know,” she answered the person. “Because I want to?”

My favorite songs of the evening: “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?,” “Down with Love,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” “The Woman in the Moon,” “Cockeyed Optimist,” “My Shining Hour” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” (performed with such glee you knew she meant every word).

And yes, the George W. Bush impersonator Steve Bridges showed up and was hilarious. He said last Tuesday had given him a good “Texas thumpin’.” “What’s that?” Streisand asked. “It’s when your butt stays blue for two years. He he he he.” He and Barbra sang a new duet on “Side by Side” with newly re-written lyrics about Madame Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (to whom Streisand dedicated “The Woman in the Moon” along with the 71 women in the House andthe 16 in the Senate).

Streisand recited a long quote by William Saroyan from the preface to his play The Time of Your Life, and it captures beautifully the spirit of the evening (especially considering she cut out the part about killing):

In the time of your life, live…Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed…Be inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself…In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the mystery and sorrow of the word, but shall smile to the infite delight and mystery of it.

More Barbra love

While I’m at it, I thought I’d share with you this treat from the folks at and

It’s a live recording session of La Streisand singing “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide.

I have no idea why this beauty has never been released. And there are others on YouTube. Look for Streisand singing “Moonfall” from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Full-on Barbra love

On Monday (Nov. 13) I will be one of thousands making the trek to San Jose’s HP Pavilion to see Barbra Streisand say farewell to live performance (again).

I’m admitting it here, in public, amidst my Dogs, that I am a lifelong lover of BS. I’ve been with her through it all, including good taste and bad taste (hers and mine), good movies and bad (hers), good songs and bad (hers again). I saw her say farewell six years ago in Los Angeles, and I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to see her in my own backyard (so to speak).

In our Nov. 12 paper we ran a Barbra extravaganza penned by yours truly. You can read it here, but you’ll miss the brilliant graphics by Greg Traverso of our graphics department.

One of the things I included was something I called The Perfect Streisand Mix, which is really just a compliaton of some of favorite BS tunes that you might not necesarily know. I re-print the list below with a few additions because in cyberspace, there are no space limitations.

Oh, and Rosie O’Donnell, if you’re reading (and of course she is — Lily Tomlin told her to never miss a Theater Dogs blog entry), I want to be in your Barbra Streisand fan documentary. Rosie, you and I speak each other’s sentences when it comes to Barbra and Broadway.

The perfect Streisand playlist
In this world of online music downloading and portable playlists, we offer the following (highly subjective but based on decades of research) menu of Streisand delicacies. These aren’t necessarily the hits, but they’re great.

“Down with Love” (from “The Second Barbra Streisand Album,” 1963)
“If I Could” (from “Higher Ground,” 1997)
“Jingle Bells?” (from “A Christmas Album,” 1967)
“Where or When” (from “Color Me Barbra,” 1966)
“Since I Fell for You” (from “Barbra Joan Streisand,” 1971)
“Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” (from “Harold Sings Arlen with Friend,” 1966)
“My Man” (from “Funny Girl,” the original motion picture soundtrack, 1968)
“Pavane (Vocalise)” (from “Classical Barbra,” 1976)
“Love with All the Trimmings” (from “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” original motion picture soundtrack, 1970)
“Sweet Inspiration/Where You Lead” (from “Live Concert at the Forum,” 1972)
“Clear Sailing” (from “Emotion,” 1984)
“Yentl Medley” (from “Barbra: The Concert,” 1984)
“I’ll Be Home” (from “Stoney End,” 1971)
“Somewhere” (from “The Broadway Album,” 1985)

I’d also add: “More In Love with You” (from “The Movie Album,” 2003); “Letting Go” (from “Guilty Pleasures,” 2005); “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” (from “Duets,” 2002);
“Places That Belong to You” (from “The Prince of Tides,” original motion picture soundtrack, 1991); “Pretty Women/The Ladies Who Lunch” (from “The Broadway Album,” 1985); “One More Night” (from “Songbird,” 1978); “The Woman in the Moon” (from“A Star Is Born,” original motion picture soundtrack, 1976); “There’s Gonna Be A Great Day” (from “Funny Lady,” original motion picture soundtrack, 1975); “Pieces of Dreams” (from “The Way We Were,” 1974); “I Never Has Seen Snow” (from “Barbra Streisand…and Other Musical Instruments,” 1973).

I’ll blog about the concert after I catch my breath.