Center Stage

Broadway and Babs' Basement: Michael Urie toasting and roasting Streisand on stage in 'Buyer & Cellar'

2014-05-16T14:00:00Z 2014-05-16T15:51:07Z Broadway and Babs' Basement: Michael Urie toasting and roasting Streisand on stage in 'Buyer & Cellar'By Philip Potempa nwitimes.com
May 16, 2014 2:00 pm  • 

Actor Michael Urie welcomed a range of noted names backstage in New York while starring in last year's Off-Broadway run of the smash-hit "Buyer & Cellar."

Like Urie himself, it's a show that is clever and creative, packed with stories and personas, all packaged with what seems like an innocent exterior, while offering just a hint of a naughty smile.

What kind of one-man stage show could attract the appearances and applause of Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Barry Manilow to plant themselves in the audience?

The answer is a fun, fictionalized, (but still inspired by a very real premise concerning Barbra Streisand's basement) production, and it's the hot show of the summer playing May 6 until June 15 at The Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place in Chicago.

Urie stars as Alex More, a struggling actor in Los Angeles who takes a job working in the mall Streisand has in the basement of her Malibu home.  (Don't bother to re-read this last sentence, as incredible as it might seem). One day, Babs comes downstairs and bonding begins while a host of subjects are explored spanning the price of fame, the cost of materialistic possessions and a spotlight on life when working one of the oddest of odd jobs.

It's Urie, the lone man on stage during this 90-minute comedy, who morphs in and out of all of the roles, including some very on-the-mark moments playing both Babs and lead character Alex's boyfriend Barry.

While Streisand has never seen the show, actress Jane Fonda has.

"When Jane Fonda came backstage, the first thing she said is: 'That shopping mall in Streisand's basement is real! I've been there!' " said Urie, known to TV fans for playing the personal assistant of Vanessa Williams' character on the ABC series "Ugly Betty."

"Then, the next thing Jane said was: 'Has Barbra seen it? I don't think she'd like it. Do you?' "

Urie, all smiles, is quick to clarify the show is meant to be fun and entertaining and isn't mean-spirited.

Following the Broadway In Chicago limited engagement, Urie and the production move on to play runs in Washington D.C. and then Los Angeles, where it will be very convenient for Streisand to slip-in to a back row and see what's transpiring before the eyes and ears of audiences around the country.

"Buyer & Cellar" had its world premiere in April 2013 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York, where it received rave reviews and played a sold-out, extended run before transferring to the Barrow Street Theatre where it opened June 24, 2013 and continues to break box office records now starring Broadway leading man Christopher J. Hanke. The play recouped its initial investment faster than any Off-Broadway show and was recently nominated for a 2014 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show.

Written by Jonathan Tolins, Urie said the playwright developed the idea for the show after simple table talk with his pals about Streisand and her casual reference to the mall landscape in the basement of her home included in a coffee-table book she published about her life, career and homes.

"Jonathan said to his friends: 'How'd you like to be the guy who works at that mall that has only one customer, and it's always Barbra Streisand!' and from that, an idea for a stage play was born," said Urie, who credits the production's director Stephen Brackett with helping him fine-tune his interpretation of the story and tone between characters.

(Urie confides Tolins originally created this one-man show for actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson of ABC's "Modern Family," but the redhead's TV filming schedule was not conducive to also doing this stage work.)

Likeable and genuine spirit Urie is full of energy and works hard to please his audiences.

"It's not easy being the only guy on stage for eight shows a week," said Urie, also admitting he's confounded by the fact he's never been to Chicago prior to this show opportunity.

"There's not much around me on stage, as for set, props and costume. It's all just me. But I love this story and the characters so much, so it's a good time sharing the connection these special people have with an audience."

He said when he chatted with Midler backstage, the actress was someone who understood the expectations (and exhaustion) of anchoring a one-person stage story.

Last year, Midler starred as the late Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers on Broadway before a three-week December run in Los Angeles in the play titled "I'll Eat You Last."

Ironically, Mengers' roster of A-list clients such as Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw and Faye Dunaway also included Streisand.

And yes, Streisand, joined by husband James Brolin, even attended in December to see Midler bring the late agent back to life.

"It was a wonderful performance," Streisand said in a released statement to the Los Angeles Times via her publicist.

"Bette made me laugh in the same way that Sue did and she touched my heart as Sue did. It isn't the whole story of course. Some of the facts are not true, but it was a very enjoyable evening."

So will there be a sighting of Streisand at one of Urie's future performances, with a publicist statement also to follow?

A suddenly silent Urie just smiles and widens his bright eyes in anticipation.

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