BWW Review: Chris Crawford Gives One of the Year's Top Performances in Jonathan Tolins' BUYER AND CELLAR at freeFall Theatre
"If Miss Streisand did not exist, she would have to be invented, as, I believe, she was. There may be uglier women in the world than Miss Streisand, but surely none that wears her ugliness--enhanced by monumental arrogance--with more bravura (Italian), panache (French) and chutzpah (Yiddish)." --John Simon in one of his harsher reviews for "Esquire" entitled "Better Vietnam Than Barbra Streisand"
"It's been commonly said that the musical 'Funny Girl' was a comfort to people because it carried the message that you do not need to be pretty to succeed...That is nonsense; the 'message' of Barbra Streisand in 'Funny Girl' is that talent is beauty..." --Pauline Kael in her review of "Funny Girl"
I hate being caught in the middle of the road with my opinions, but when it comes to Barbra Streisand, that's often where I find myself. No doubt she's a beloved megastar, an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime talent, and an entertainer who hit heights higher than anyone else (someone once called her the Female Frank Sinatra, which makes me suspect that someone else has referred to Mr. Sinatra as the Male Barbra Streisand). Her career covers all the bases, and she's won Oscars (Best Actress and Best Song), Emmy's, several Grammy's, and a special Tony Award. With a competitive Tony not in her grasp (her work in Funny Girl lost to Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!), Streisand is shockingly not an official EGOT, but her fans, as rabid as they come, don't care. They think of her as a multi-talented goddess so epic that her worth cannot be measured by mere awards.
As a singer, Streisand boasts no equal, and I admire several of her pieces, even the way-over-the-top "Watch Closely Now" finale from A Star is Born; her work with Stephen Sondheim on The Broadway Album; and (especially) her renditions of Laura Nyro's rollicking "Stoney End" and "Time and Love." But sometimes, she strangles a song to death rather than just singing it. (Some of her Beatles covers are unlistenable; please try to sit through her ear-slaughtering versions of "Honey Pie" or "With a Little Help from My Friends" if you don't believe me.) Even with a hit like "Enough is Enough (No More Tears)," her 1979 disco duet with Donna Summer, you can catch her aggressively going for the big notes, trying to beat Ms. Summer in some sort of vocal contest, rather than just singing a true duet. In the performance, Streisand tries to tear Summer to shreds; she nails the notes but gets a zero in teamwork. (Her other, more recent duets seem much more give-and-take.) Her late 70's dance work, like "The Main Event/Fight," is fun but out of her realm, not that far removed from Ethel Merman's camp stab at disco.
As an actress, Streisand works much better in comedy, as her quippy, comedic turn in What's Up, Doc? attests. But I seldom buy into her more serious work. She does a fine job directing various films, especially The Prince of Tides, but her direction there failed one of the key performances: Hers. She seemed to pose and smolder rather than just be, and the script, from a very entertaining book, was altered to spotlight her role rather than story of Tom Wingo's childhood. (It's like the movie It without much of the first part featuring the children.) That's what immense talent plus a major ego can do.
I love that Streisand is politically active and remains relevant at the age of 77. But I'm still torn by her. She's one of the greatest talents of the past fifty years, male or female, but she either leaves you cold or leaves you kneeling at her altar. Or, if you are like me, leaves you somewhere trapped between these worlds, between the Streisand-hating John Simons and the Babs-loving mega-fans who will pay any amount to attend one of her live performances.
Which leads me to Jonathan Tolins' very entertaining BUYER AND CELLAR, currently at freeFall, which both celebrates and humanizes Ms. Streisand.
I felt very sympathetic towards Ms. Streisand while watching this (fictional) story. There is no actual "Alex Cross," who in the play watches over Ms. Streisand's (very real) Malibu basement that is re-created like an avenue of shops in order to house her dresses, antiques and knick-knacks. (Her real-life creation of this was featured in her 2010 coffee table book, My Passion for Design, which inspired Mr. Tolins to write the play.) But it's really the story of celebrity and the lonely-at-the-top (or, in this case, in-the-basement) cliché of being famous. You get a feeling that Ms. Streisand is in need of a friend, of an everyday purpose behind just being one of America's most famous faces and voices. In her down time, when she is not onstage and worshipped, who is she?
BUYER AND CELLAR is remarkable because no actress is onstage playing Ms. Streisand, and yet we really seem to get to know her here. The whole production features a sole actor in a variety of roles, including Ms. Streisand, telling the story of a gay man's friendship with the world's most famous gay icon. This is the show made for an electric, flamboyant, bigger-than-life but realer-than-real actor to inhabit. It's a rollercoaster role, so many highs and lows, and there's only one person onstage the whole time: Chris Crawford.
I have enjoyed Mr. Crawford in a variety of roles through the years--a Christian with so much heart in Natalie Symons' The Buffalo Kings; Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher; and Hook in Peter Pan. (There is an in-joke to his Peter Pan villain at the start of BUYER AND CELLAR.) Crawford is so fun on stage, so watchable and totally alive, that I can't imagine anyone else doing this role so effectively. He's funny, almost flirting with the audience for laughs at times, but there's masterful timing at play, and so much depth. This isn't just the portrayal of a wannabe-actor who finds his strength after his encounters with the world number one diva, his only customer. This is a man in search of some significance in his life, who goes for the money and leaves for the money, but finds out that the things worth remembering, the things that matter, are the things that money can't buy.
Crawford plays each character so specifically that we are never in doubt who is speaking, whether it's Alex's lover (the ranting Barry), or boss at the Streisand estate (the eye-rolling Sharon). Every character comes to life in this presentational performance, but it's his take on Ms. Streisand that is most intriguing. He doesn't exactly get the voice down, but the timing, the mannerisms, are all there and we imagine that we are in the presence of the star. He gets the essence of her and then some; I actually felt sorry for her, which, being an official fence-sitter when it comes to Ms. Streisand, I didn't think I was capable of doing. That's the power of Crawford's winning turn here.
It's overall a fast 90-100 minutes (no intermission). We find ourselves listening intently throughout, laughing quite a bit. There are a couple of moments where it gets a little long and our minds naturally wander, but Crawford is so incredible that he gets us back on track in no time.
Tolins' script is quite funny with just the right moments for pathos; it's a locomotive of a play one moment, a still life the next. The show is seamlessly directed by Timothy Saunders, with Tom Hansen's ingenious set design to show off (opulent and everyday at the same time, with a chaise lounge that looks so damned comfortable). Eric Davis' sound design and especially his video work are integrated beautifully in the production, and Dalton Hamilton's lighting sets the proper mood throughout.
But in the end, it's Crawford's show. His marathon of a performance runs the full gamut, a whisper to an exuberant yawp. Since January, we have been gifted with a plethora of notable local performances: Chris Marshall in Copenhagen; Nick Hoop in Columbinus; Gillian Glasco in Pipeline; Giles Davies in Othello; Emily Belvo in Hedda; and Allen Fitzpatrick in Sweeney Todd. But Chris Crawford in BUYER AND CELLAR belongs near the top of that illustrious list in what must be one of the finest performances of this year...or any year.