John Tartaglia Brings Barbra, Brooklyn, and Buyer to George Street Playhouse

The Tony-nominated ”Avenue Q” star ruminates on embodying a number of characters in Jonathan Tolins’ ”Buyer & Cellar”.

John Tartaglia stars in Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse.
John Tartaglia stars in Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse.
(© David Gordon)

John Tartaglia has taken on a high-strung puppet in Avenue Q, dancing candlestick Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, spunky puppet Pinocchio in Shrek The Musical, and even the motormouthed Genie in Muny's Aladdin. However, none of those surpass the behemoth of a role he is currently playing, waxing poetic on all things Streisand in Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar at George Street Playhouse.

As Alex More, Tartaglia plays an underemployed actor who finds himself the sole employee of the "basement shopping mall" that Barbra herself built on her Malibu estate to display all of the items she has bought, collected, and saved over her years in the spotlight. Throughout the part-truth, part-fiction solo show, Tartaglia embodies a number of different personae, including Oprah Winfrey; James Brolin; Alex's boyfriend, Barry; and, of course, Barbra herself.

Tartaglia, who is known to many as the executive producer, creator, and star of the Disney Channel's hit children's series Johnny and the Sprites, spoke with TheaterMania about taking on what he considers the most difficult role of his career.

What is the most challenging aspect of bringing Barbra's cadences and mannerisms to the stage?
She's very hard! What I'm starting to figure out is that she's a Brooklyn girl at heart, but because she's lived this incredible life, she has this sophisticated way of speaking that fights against the "Brooklyn." It’s this combination that has been fun and challenging to get. She has this broad, over-the-top dialect. Barbra is Brooklyn one second, and the next she is very refined. It's been fun to watch a lot of footage of her to try and figure out where she fits. Everyone loves her so much, so you want to do her justice. I find that I am doing this "Barbra accent" every day now. It's funny because it's seeping into my life. I'll be on the phone with someone and realize I said something in a very Brooklyn-y way. [laughs]

What tips has original Drama Desk-winning star Michael Urie offered you about the role?

When I texted him that I was so excited to do the role he got back to me saying, "You're going to be great…good luck with the memorizing!" [laughs] It's sixty-plus pages of dialogue, and it's all conversations, facts, and figures. I can honestly say it's the hardest thing I've done as an actor. He said, "Just have fun, it's an incredibly liberating feeling to do all these characters." Now that I've done it, I have to agree.

In your opinion, which of the stories that Alex gets to tell is the most fantastical?
I really love the more honest, sweet moments between Barbra and Alex where you get a little peek into her vulnerability. When you usually see her in interviews and in real life, it's very carefully orchestrated so you don't get to see that truly vulnerable side very often. The other extreme is Alex's boyfriend, Barry, who is so exaggerated and so much fun to play. To get to be Barbra and have these intimate moments, and then to get to be Barry and have these crazy fun monologues about her is really fun.

John Tartaglia with Rod in the original production of Avenue Q.
John Tartaglia with Rod in the original production of Avenue Q.
(© Carol Rosegg)

What would flamboyant puppet Rod of Avenue Q have to say about Buyer & Cellar?
Rod would be at that show every single night! He would probably have a front-row-center seat, and would know and mouth along to every single reference. I think this would be Rod's dream role.

If Barbra were in the audience, what would she have to say about you being in the show?
I hope that she would see it as a love letter to her. I think she feels that she can never appreciate what she's meant to people. At the heart of it all, she is a human being searching for purpose and meaning. She had a very unhappy childhood, and went on to be arguably the most successful performer of our time…and maybe it's not enough. You hear a lot of celebrities say that you can have the world at your feet, but you would give everything up for one more hug from your parents, or one more happy memory. I think in the show we honor that about her. At the end of the day she is looking to be loved. I think she would be honored by that. I can't imagine what it's like to watch your life be played out onstage.

Which of her songs does the fanboy in you sing in the shower?
I keep singing "The Way We Were" over and over. My mom used to sing that song. It's very homey every time I hear it.

John Taraglia as Alex More in Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse.
John Taraglia in Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse.
(© George Street Playhouse)

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Buyer & Cellar

Closed: March 29, 2015