Shortly after announcing that In Tandem Theatre would move out of its space in the lower level of the Calvary Church and discontinue offering full seasons, the company opened its final show of the 2018-19 year – and the last piece it will produce in the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, the production of "The Fabulous Lipitones," running through May 19, ensures that the company will go out on a high note.
The plot of the show is simple, silly and thoroughly endearing. A barbershop quartet, made up of high school buddies who are now all limping towards middle age, has been harmonizing and participating in competitions that celebrate the niche musical genre for decades, with little success. When the foursome finally wins a regional contest, they are ecstatic – until they realize that the effort was just too much for their lead singer, who drops dead after holding a note a little too long.
What are the remaining three washed up white guys in the middle of nowhere Ohio supposed to do? With only two weeks until the national competition, how can they find someone who will fit in with their tight harmonies and their long history together?
Like the plot of nearly every "Glee" episode, the gang has to pull together so the show can go on, even if it means working with a new singer who comes from far outside their normal social circles. Bob (an energetic and appealing Ethan Brittingham) is a mechanic at the local garage and easily 20 years younger than the other Lipitones. He’s also a brown-skinned, turban-wearing Sikh who looks suspiciously like a Middle Eastern terrorist – at least according to Phil, the bully of the group, played by a fantastic Steve Koehler.
For the nerdy pharmacist Wally (Rick Pendzich) and the chronically indecisive accountant Howard (Nathan Marinan), Bob’s ethnicity isn’t an issue, as long as he can sing and learn the group’s cheesy choreography quickly.
Maybe, just maybe, this time they’ll beat their archnemesis quartet, the Sons of Pitches. (Cue rimshot.)
If this sounds like the plot of an ’80s sitcom, it’s no coincidence. Both writers, John Markus and Mark St. Germain, have penned dozens of episodes of TV classics like "The Cosby Show," "Ellen" and "The Larry Sanders Show." In this case the formula tees up a lot of standard prejudice and anxiety about interacting with someone from the other side of the world who, according to Phil, could be working for Al Qaeda and at the very least is responsible for all airport security delays.
In order to up the punchline quota even further, Markus and St. Germain have concocted silly backstories for the three original Lipitones. Phil has a penchant for Tom Jones and a struggling tanning parlor/gym, Wally has just signed up for an online dating site for pharmacists (cue the double entendres) and Howard is taking care of his terminally ill wife, even though she brazenly cheated on him in the past. None of these character complications really make the guys more interesting; they just open up the dialogue for a plethora puns and innuendo outside the world of barbershop quartets.
To their credit, the cast delivers even the most groan-worthy joke earnestly, whether they garner laughs or not. Koehler, Pendzich and Marinan each do a great job of inhabiting their slightly silly characters and giving them lots of heart. Even the brash, swaggering Phil isn’t a completely terrible guy thanks to Koehler's performance, and the group’s banter rings true to friends who’ve been together for decades. They share a bond formed as teens, lot of history and the vague disappointment that their lives didn’t turn out quite as well as they’d hoped.
And with the patience of a good-natured foreign exchange student, Brittingham’s Bob addresses Phil’s xenophobia, calmly educating him about the Sikh religion and his culture. He also has the occasion to school the guys on illegal practices of unscrupulous employers in town and the difficulties that immigrants face trying to find work in the U.S. Fortunately Phil sees the errors of his bigoted ways in the end, and each member of the quartet learns to express himself individually through song.
And lest the audience forgets, the music is what brought these guys together. It’s also the most successful part of the show. Each Lipitone has a terrific voice, and they harmonize effortlessly. With Pendzich whipping out his pitch pipe for any occasion – including funerals – the guys sing patriotic medleys and ballads from the turn of the 20th century like "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" and "I Want a Girl like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad," much to Bob’s confusion. (Cue the misunderstood metaphors and cultural references.) Like a good old-fashioned musical, the finale pays off all of these problems – and even includes a kickline amongst some snappy new Bollywood moves.
If only America’s real collective angst about immigration could be solved through such top-notch song and dance.