A barbershop quartet suddenly becomes a trio when one member drops dead of a heart attack onstage at a regional competition. The thing is that they’ve won, and now they’re headed to the nationals. They need to find a fourth, in short order, and the only viable option presenting himself is a big-hearted, eccentric foreigner who, though he sings perfectly, is otherwise comically out of sync with the other members of the group.
It’s an old-fashioned idea for a musical. I think that even 50 years ago, people might have remarked, “That’s an old-fashioned idea for a musical.” But it’s nonetheless the plot behind “The Fabulous Lipitones,” the world-premiere musical at Theatrical Outfit through April 21. It’s a pleasant show, even if not contemporary, surprising or inventive.
Barbershop quartets are an interesting phenomenon, or rather they’re an interesting phenomenon because they’re so uninteresting. For most people who aren’t involved in one, I imagine they’re just something that seems to exist, like grass or rocks. They’re just sort of there, and we seldom spend time thinking about it. But unlike grass or rocks, people make up barbershop quartets, people who choose to do it, people who decide, “Yes, I will put on a candy-striped vest and a straw boater to sing ‘Bill Grogan’s Goat’ in four-part harmony.” It’s lovely if you stop to think about it. But really, who are they?
The surviving members of the Fabulous Lipitones, it turns out, are three well-meaning, more than a little out-of-touch, provincial old white guys worried about their own mortality. They know that their devotion to barbershop isn’t just old-fashioned, it’s bizarrely old-fashioned and becoming more so every day. But their connection to the music and to one another runs so deep that they can’t give it up. By chance, they hear a talented voice in the background of a speakerphone call, and it turns out to belong to Bob (Daniel Hilton), a Sikh working in the United States on a fraudulently extended visa. He is willing to navigate the challenges of singing with these three because he likewise shares their love of music.
As you’re probably guessed by now, there are lessons learned, some cutesy comedy, heartstrings pulled and (spoiler alert?) a big, triumphant finale at a competition. There are a few moments of genuine humor and emotion along the way, but overall it’s inoffensive, predictable, programmatic stuff. The airlessly tight structure and predictability recall 1980s TV sitcoms. The singing voices of the leads are pleasant but not stunning, and I think a play that takes a particular type of music as such a large part of its subject needs for that music to sound fantastic, even singularly so. Still, “The Fabulous Lipitones” serves up what it’s serving admirably well, the audience on opening night seemed to enjoy it, and I had a nice enough time.
I didn’t get a chance to read my program until I got home, but even before I opened it, I knew the extraordinary set design — a basement recreation room full of all sorts of telling, touching, interesting and smart detail — was by sister designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, who continue to do amazing work on the Atlanta theatrical scene.