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Heartfelt harmony – ‘The Fabulous Lipitones’

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Heartfelt harmony – ‘The Fabulous Lipitones’ (photo courtesy of Penobscot Theatre Company/© Magnus Stark, 2017)

PTC opener features laughs, tears ... and barbershop 

BANGOR – A particularly harmonious quartet has taken over the stage at the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre Company is opening its 44th season with “The Fabulous Lipitones,” a comedy with music written by John Markus and Mark St. Germain, with lyrics by St. Germain and music by Randy Courts. The show – directed and choreographed by Michael Marotta with music direction by Danny Williams – is running at the newly-renovated Opera House through Sept. 24.

It’s the story of the titular Lipitones, a barbershop quartet that lost its lead in the course of winning a regional competition. Now, if they want to go on to nationals, they must find a replacement, but that turns out to be a bit more complicated than they expected. It’s a tale of flaws and friendship and the never-ending quest for true harmony – in music, yes, but also in life.

After the passing of their lead and leader Andy Lippinski during their last barbershop competition, the three surviving members of The Fabulous Lipitones – naïve, earnest pharmacist Wally (Dominick Varney), milquetoast people-pleaser Howard (D.C. Anderson) and egotistical tough guy gym owner Phil (Doug Meswarb) – are left to decide what to do now. They’ve got a berth to nationals, but without a lead, they can’t compete.

A conversation with Wally’s mechanic inadvertently leads the Lipitones to overhear a beautiful voice singing in the background, one belonging to a man named Bob. The trio invites Bob to come over and audition to be a part of the group, but when he arrives, they discover that Bob isn’t quite who they anticipated.

See, “Bob” (Danish Farooqui) is actually short for Baba Mati Singh (which is actually itself short for something else). He’s a practicing Sikh, with all that that entails – the ever-present turban, the ceremonial blade and such. This shocks the Lipitones; however, while Wally and Howard quickly accept Bob’s differences, unexpected as they are, Phil proves unable to be quite so welcoming due to some frankly kind of ugly preconceptions with regards to people who look like Bob.

Each man is left to determine for himself just how he will deal with these myriad changes. And in the middle of it all, the Fabulous Lipitones have to decide if they’re really ready to make the push forward and head to nationals so that they might take down the four-time national champion Sons of Pitches and hoist aloft the highest honor in barbershop.

There’s a heartfelt sweetness at the core of “The Fabulous Lipitones” that permeates the entire show. The degree of sentimentality on display is significant, but while it skates up to the line of becoming a bit saccharine or cloying, the play never quite crosses it.

Much of that vibe can likely be chalked up to the sitcom background of co-writer John Markus, best known for his work on “The Cosby Show.” And at times, this show does have the feel of a multi-camera sitcom of that era. The action is driven situationally, with plenty of jokes and a lovely sense of heart; one can easily imagine oneself as part of a “Filmed live before a studio audience” audience.

The cast seems uniquely suited for bringing the best out of this tale. Varney’s Wally is a sweet man, a romantic at heart, which makes his quest for love both relatable and very funny. Anderson captures the humble devotion inherent to Howard, allowing glimpses of the true determination beneath his pushover veneer. Farooqui is a spark of unending positivity; his energy remains bright even in his sadder moments. There’s an effortless charm to what he does. Meswarb’s is perhaps the toughest task of them all, but he manages to shine a light on Phil’s good qualities even as he commits fully to embracing the not-so-good ones.

And of course – the harmony. There’s the music, of course; music director Williams has done a wonderful job in helping these four become a true quartet. Their voices mesh beautifully, dipping and leaping and coming together in a buttery blend. It’s worth noting that this kind of harmonizing is HARD, yet these guys manage to make it look easy. Impressive musicianship across the board from these guys.

But almost equally impressive is the narrative harmony. These four blend their relationship dynamics as smoothly as they do their sung notes. Good and bad, they’ve built a solid storytelling foundation out of their interactions. They resist falling into any sitcom or very special episode trappings, instead informing their time on stage with honesty and commitment.

Credit to director Marotta for finding the ways to mine that harmony from his cast; there are some too-easy choices that could be made here, but Marotta instead opts to push for something that feels a bit more meaningful.

As for the production values, well … PTC continues its ongoing tradition of excellent design and execution. The scenic design from Chez Cherry is delightful, a meticulously rendered basement that captures the spirit of its inhabitants. Scout Hough’s lighting design is strong across the board, though the lighting shifts as the Lipitones break into song are particularly, subtly wonderful. Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes are lovely; come for the track suits, stay for the barbershop outfits. Katie Guzzi tames the notoriously finicky Opera House acoustics, while Meredith Perry’s prop designs are spot-on as usual.

Call it cornball if you like; “The Fabulous Lipitones” doesn’t care about your cynicism. Thanks to a razor-sharp cast committed to finding the harmony both musically and narratively, the show springs to bright-eyed, brightly-toned life.

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