Lyric's "Buyer and Cellar": Like Buttah

Phil Tayler in "Buyer and Cellar"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

It was a summer night way back in 1964 that this critic first saw Barbra live in the musical “Funny Girl”. (If you have to ask “Barbra who?”, there's no need to proceed further). She was only 22 years old, and this was already her second Broadway musical, her first lead in a show after quite a triumph in a supporting role two seasons prior in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale”. It was also her last lead in a live theatrical production, as Hollywood beckoned, and stage fright took care of the rest. Her turn in “Funny Girl” was the stuff of legend, infecting most of us audience members with that persistent incurable condition known as diva-ticulitis. Hers was easily the greatest display of theatrical presence ever.

Until now. Or, at least, there's now a close second in Phil Tayler. In the current Lyric Stage production of “Buyer and Cellar”, a one-person play by Jonathan Tolins, this locally beloved actor gives the diva a run for her money. As Alex More, he's the sole employee in “The Mall of Malibu”, owned by that certain megastar known simply here as Barbra. Inspired by her coffee table book, “My Passions for Design”, it's a non-stop roller coaster of laughs. La Streisand set the bar high in the Broadway and film versions of “Funny Girl” with the unequivocal song “I'm the Greatest Star”. Tayler states that as a gay man (his character Alex, that is) worshiping her is, after all, “part of my birthright, my heritage” and warns us we'll have to do our parts imagining this stellar cellar designer; he suggests “you can fill in the rest”.

Not to worry, folks. His tour de farce performance goes down “like buttah” (with apologies to SNL). This shouldn't surprise. Tayler is no stranger to Lyric Stage audiences, having excelled in about a dozen or so past productions for the company, including “Follies”, “Kiss Me Kate”, “Working”, “On the Town”, “City of Angels”, “Stones in His Pockets”, “Avenue Q” and “Sweeney Todd”. This is to say that we already knew how prolific and versatile this triple threat (acting, singing, dancing) Boston Conservatory grad was, or so we thought we knew. That was before he took on, in this play, portraying Oprah, James Brolin, Beatrice Arthur and.....yes, even Barbra. (He's perhaps best as his boyfriend Barry, a much broader queen). He's got the diva nailed (right down to slightly longer-than-normal nails), as well as all the other characters, and his timing in every one of them is impeccable. It's a joy to watch his every facial expression, his fluid movements, that rather naughty glint in his eye, betraying how much fun he's having performing this role. But not as much as we are. It's extremely rare to experience a show that literally consists, as noted above, of non-stop laughs. It's Tayler's best role ever, and that's saying quite a lot. Attendance at this performance would be the greatest holiday present a theatregoer could give, either to herself or himself, or to others. It's a phenomenon, already the highpoint of this season.
Kudos to Director Courtney O'Connor, who's the co-creator of this impossibly hilarious, dead-on portrait. The creative team is in on the gags, from the wise and versatile Scenic Design by Anthony R. Phelps, to the just-right Costume Design by Rafael Jaen, and the perfectly-timed Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and Sound Design by David Remedios. (And whoever dyed Tayler's locks in Barbra's favorite color). The original off-Broadway all-white-painted version lacked definition, which tempered one's enthusiasm; here everything contributes positively to the overall effect.

By the time the whirlwind winds down, Alex has grown to realize that the circle you can make with your arms outstretched contains what's most important in our lives; all the efforts, all the things that surround us, matter so much less; what may matter most is finding someone who knows what to do with one's down time on a Sunday. With just the right partner, you can fill in the rest.

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