When one thinks of barbershop quartets, it’s hard not to think of a bygone era. The image of four men singing harmonies together can serve as a photograph of 1950s America — a time of golly-gee wholesomeness, right down to one’s little, white bobby socks.
“The Fabulous Lipitones,” currently running at George Street Playhouse, brings that world to a complete halt for three middle-aged white men in London, Ohio whose quartet suddenly becomes a trio when the fourth member dies singing the high B flat in a barbershop quartet competition. They were able to win, mostly with sympathy votes, but now have less than two weeks to find a replacement for the finals.
“They’re in the middle of trying to decide whether they should move forward or not when the local garage calls to tell one of the guys (Wally) that his car is ready,” explained Michael Mastro, who returns to George Street to direct the production. “In the background, they hear somebody sing ‘Oh, Danny Boy…’ They tell him to bring the phone closer and ask ‘Who is that? Is that the radio?’ The guy says, ‘No, that’s Bob. He works here.’”
They tell him to have Bob come by to audition for the group, but are warned that he is probably not their type. When he arrives the next day, they realize what the mechanic meant. Bob is a young immigrant from India who sticks out like a sore thumb when placed alongside the middle-aged men.
“The three guys have been together since high school. They’re now in their fifties and suddenly there is a new stranger in their midst,” said Mastro.
None of the three believes they are racist, but that’s because racism doesn’t exist in their own tiny world. In the 1998 film “Pleasantville,” the concept of racism was confronted when two kids from 1990s America were transported back into a quiet 1950s suburban town. We see how the introduction of new ideas radically changes the town and its townspeople. “The Fabulous Lipitones” takes a similar approach with the use of barbershop. These three men have only seen people like Bob on the news, usually depicted in an extremist light. Confronted with the reality before them, racist attitudes emerge and stereotypes are challenged.
“Bob is a relatively new immigrant and he’s very enthusiastic about everything from “Glee” to Lady Gaga to Jimmy Cagney,” continued Mastro. “He knows a lot about American culture. He’s fascinated with it and has gained all of his expectations about America from it. Suddenly, he’s meeting the reality of some of the inherent racism that people have whether they mean to or not, and it’s something he struggles with.”
“The Fabulous Lipitones” uses humor to hide the serious message it presents. Written by John Markus and Mark St. Germain – a pair of writers whose friendship first began while writing for “The Cosby Show”) – the play fires off one-liners throughout and often points fun at the art of barbershop. For the three life-long friends, singing harmonies was the only thing they were ever truly good at, and they are forced with either giving up their love or adapting to a situation they never imagined facing.
“The play celebrates some very lovely ideas about America that I think some of us may have forgotten,” said Mastro. “It’s about what America can be and what it can mean to be an American — certainly the idea of being open to people of different races and religion and America being a country where there’s room for everyone to be who they are.”
John Markus grew up in London, Ohio and the play is sort of a fictional account of the town he knew. It takes place in the present, but was written with the spirit of “The Andy Griffith Show” in mind. The playwrights told Mastro that one of the characters was supposedly based on the show. To prepare for the production, the director revisited the show that he loved as a kid.
“There is a celebration of values that I don’t think are entirely bad in that show and I think that’s why we like it,” said Mastro. “Whether the playwrights meant to or not, they sort of captured some of that. The play has irony and sarcasm, but there’s still a naive belief on the part of many people in the show in things that are good about the country.
“For me, the play is about many things,” continued Mastro. “It’s about outsiders, xenophobia and America itself, and it celebrates some of the better things America can be.”
In a Q&A with John Markus found in the show’s program, the playwright says, “If a story evokes consistent laughter and genuine enthusiasm from an audience, it can coax people into any journey. For six years, Bill Cosby always coached me on how to deliver our show’s message by ‘sneaking in through the backdoor, and not spoon feeding the people.’ He talked about how laughter would be the audience’s reward for taking that journey with you.”
“The Fabulous Lipitones” stars Broadway veterans Donald Corren, Wally Dunn, and Jim Walton, alongside YouTube sensation Rohan Kymal. Together, they will take you on a journey filled with hilarity, beautiful harmonies, and social commentary.
Directed by Michael Mastro, the production runs now through December 14 at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ. For more information visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.