Barbershop harmonies, sitcom-ready jokes, and a savory dollop of Bollywood spice make The Fabulous Lipitones’ California Premiere a pleasant bit of midsummer fluff likely to please (if not rejuvenate) the Colony Theatre’s longtime subscriber base.
Lipitones lead singer Andy’s “strenuously high B-flat” may have secured the quartet first place in the Midwest Barbershop Regionals, but it cost the singer his life (he quite literally “sang his heart out”), and with just two weeks remaining before the National Championships, the now Fab Three would seem to have but one option—and that would probably not be to find an experienced barbershopper in a mere fourteen days.
What Ohioans Howard (John Racca), Phil (Dennis Holland), and Wally (Steve Gunderson) haven’t reckoned with is the heavenly tenor they just happen to overhear on a call to the local mechanic.
Such divine intervention being impossible to ignore, the 50something threesome invite the newly hired Gas-N-Git auto repairman over for an audition, only to discover that Bob (Asante Gunewardena) is not the All-American Robert they’ve likely been expecting but a turban-wearing, dagger-sporting Sikh né Baba Maninderjeet Prahbsimdondiraaja Singh.
Fortunately for Bob, once the Ohio newcomer has rid himself of a vibrato verboten in barbershop (and once it’s been determined that yes, Bob can fit a straw hat over his patka, the better to match his Lipitone-mates’ identical chapeaux de paille), Howard and Wally are onboard, leaving racist xenophobe Phil the only holdout.
As characters go, none of the three surviving Lipitones are developed beyond the broadest of strokes.
Namby-pamby accountant Howard is the very definition of indecisive, though to give him credit, he did welcome back a wife who cheated with a Jehovah’s Witness upon learning of her ill health.
Unmarried pharmacist Wally still lives with his mother, hasn’t had a date since his junior prom (“and that was with one of the ladies on the cafeteria line”), and so far has had no luck in finding a “pharmacette” girlfriend via WhiteCoatLove.com.
Gym/tanning salon owner Phil is thrice divorced, wouldn’t mind seeing the Lipitones bite the dust, and worst of all could give Archie Bunker a lesson in bigotry, some of his remarks so offensive, they seem uncomfortably out-of-place in a comedy as otherwise lighthearted as this one.
(In case you’re wondering just how much of an a-hole Phil can be, well, despite Bob’s assurances that the knife he wears hanging from his neck is a “purely ceremonial” kirpan and thereby entirely kosher thanks to Freedom Of Religion, the quartet’s resident curmudgeon responds with “That’s Freedom To Worship, not Freedom To Shiv,” just the beginning of Phil’s spewing of anti-Muslim bile.)
Co-writers John Marcus (who also directs) and Mark St. Germain (who also wrote the lyrics to Randy Courts’ jaunty original music) know how to pen one-liners.
Some of these hit the bull’s-eye, like naming the Lipitones’ chief competition “The Sons Of Pitches,” or when South Asian Bob, upon hearing druggist Wally mention Phizer, responds “I have many family members answering their 1-800 number customer hotline.”
Other jokes go kerplop. (Phil: I do not wear Spanx! Wally: Yes, you do. I sold them to you. Phil: And you charged me retail.)
As far as endings go, The Fabulous Lipitones’ abrupt and only slightly satisfying dénouement could use some work.
Fortunately, in Gunderson, Holland, and Racca, the Colony has assembled three of our most experienced stage performers who do their darnedest to flesh out their roles, and even better, have the vocal chops to make us believe their renditions of “After You’ve Gone” and “Beautiful Dreamer” could win them the regionals. (Sam Kriger merits high marks as musical director as does choreographer Murphy Cross for her barbershop moves.)
Still, the main reason for anyone not a Colony oldster to take a chance on The Fabulous Lipitones is Gunewardena’s utterly winning Bob. Not only does the SoCal native sing quite gorgeously with or without vibrato, he has oodles of charisma (someone please give this man a romantic lead without an Indian accent) and can score laughs quite effortlessly. (Try not to chuckle when Bob expresses revulsion at the incestuous desires he perceives in “I Want A Girl (Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad)” or the abject horror he feels at the idea of a woman held captive like a “Bird in a Gilded Cage.”)
The Fabulous Lipitones looks fabulous, as befits any Colony production, from David Potts’ meticulously conceived and appointed Midwest basement rumpus room, design kudos shared with John McElveney (properties design and set dressing) and Orlando de la Paz (scenic art), the trio’s work expertly lit by Bill Kickbush. Drew Dalzell’s sound design is impeccable as always, whether providing Lipitones members’ cells with their distinctive ringtones, or subtly amping/mixing tenor, lead, baritone, and base harmonies. Last but not least are Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes, from the older guy’s schlumpy duds to Bob’s colorful turbans to the foursome’s barbershop jackets.
Art Brickman is production stage manager. Patricia Cullen is casting director. Others receiving program credit include Robert T. Kyle (technical director) and Nike Doukas (dialect coach).
Those who recall the heights reached by such recent Colony hits as Breath And Imagination: The Story Of Roland Hayes, Falling For Make Believe, The Savannah Disputation, and above all the groundbreakingly edgy Year Zero may find themselves wishing the theater had aimed higher with The Fabulous Lipitones.
Others will be glad simply to enjoy three old farts and one young whippersnapper make fabulous music together, with some laughs thrown in along the way.
Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.
July 30, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont