On a nearly 20-year-old episode of "The Simpsons," Homer claimed to have formed a barbershop quartet with Apu, Barney, and Principal Skinner that achieved a Beatles-like level of popularity in the 1980s. The new play The Fabulous Lipitones presents a more grounded version of a similar premise, as if "The Simpsons" had focused solely on the incongruity of Indian immigrant Apu wrestling with the all-American but antiquated singing style.
In its world premiere production at Theatrical Outfit, The Fabulous Lipitones touches on some rich social themes in between renditions of public domain standards like "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" or "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The comedy relies too heavily on hacky one-liners and contrived situations but also serves as a showcase for winning performances and a quaint but innately likable musical form.
The play opens with the Lipitones, a foursome from a small Georgia town, winning a regional championship with "Hello! Ma Baby," only to see the group's leader drop dead. The survivors wonder whether they can find a replacement in the week before the nationals, and while lovelorn pharmacist Wally (Glenn Rainey) suggests they soldier on, bullying gym owner Phil (William S. Murphey) votes that they quit while they're ahead. Accountant Howard (Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key) vacillates amusingly until the trio hears an angelic singing voice over a cell phone, and invite a mechanic named Bob to audition for the group. They're surprised to discover that Bob (Daniel Hilton) turns out to be a Sikh immigrant and question how his turban and beard will look with the quartet's ice cream parlor-style outfit.
Initially, the Bob role and Hilton's acting suggest an Apu-like stereotype of a Southeast Asian, complete with boyish good cheer and piping delivery. Despite the character's silly outbursts, Hilton brings a dignity to confrontations that involve post-9/11 suspicion of Muslim terrorists (even though Sikhs aren't Muslim) and the exploitation of immigrant labor. At one point we hear Bob's boss gloat over his exploitation of undocumented labor by quoting UPS: "What can brown do for you?"
In the comedic hands of a Christopher Guest, the Lipitones would prove deluded about their showbiz prospects, but the play's crooners have few illusions about barbershop quartets' waning popularity. Even though barbershop may be the most uncool performance style this side of the musical saw, live theater turns out to be a terrific venue for it. Audiences will have a hard time resisting the group's warm harmonizing, old-school melodies, and cornball dance moves.
Written by John Markus and Mark St. Germain, The Fabulous Lipitones' most appealing scenes explore cultural differences through the music, such as Bob's attempt to remove an Indian-style vibrato from his singing voice. The play would benefit from more musical insights and fewer subplots. Late in Lipitones, the characters experience setbacks in such quick succession, it's like a parody of an over-plotted script. Nevertheless, the play makes the most of the old cliché of a group of lovable losers with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win big, and could just as easily have the title The Bad News Barbershoppers.