Crass sitcom humor — unashamedly laced with overt racism and unapologetically graced with snippets of vocal harmony — constitutes “The Fabulous Lipitones,” a mostly flat yet also occasionally funny comedy with songs running at the George Street Playhouse.
In this collaboration of John Markus and Mark St. Germain three members of a barber shop quartet suddenly find themselves without their fourth, a founder who died quite suddenly following a heart attack only a week before their scheduled appearance at a national contest to be held in Reno, Nevada. His funeral service opens the play. It provides a quite funny opportunity for the three remaining members of the group to sing “After You’ve Gone.”
These three friendly, middle-aged white guys do find a replacement. The trouble is that he’s a dark-skinned, turban-wearing Sikh who is not only a few generations younger but may also be an illegal alien. It isn’t the worst idea for a situation comedy, but it’s also one that unfortunately cannot be sustained for two hours plus.
Thankfully, director Michael Mastro is in close harmony with his four actors, who have a gift for garrulous back-and-forth banter. It helps that they also have good ears for their concerted musical offerings and do their best to provide some dimension to their one-dimensional characters.
The plot’s main aim is to show how quickly the three old-timers with their traditional but tired repertoire become open and receptive to the refreshingly outgoing personality of the new recruit, a very charming and personable Baba Mati Singh (Rohan Kymal). This is not an easy task as Baba, who is called Bob, is suspected, not without some reason, of being a terrorist by the group’s resident (“I don’t negotiate with terrorists”) bully and bigot Phil Rizzardi (Donald Corren), who notices the ceremonial dagger that Bob carries around his waist.
For a while Phil, an out-of-shape owner of a gym and health spa, insists that he would prefer a career as a Tom Jones-type attraction at the local Holiday Inn. He seems willing to let the group dissolve their long-time musical association and with it their dedication to competitive barbershop singing, rather than accept this amiable and eager immigrant into the fold. The Fabulous Lipitones has kept the name given by their now deceased member, Andy Lipinsky, despite its resemblance to the popular medicine for cholesterol.
The men do eventually come around and see how the talented Bob will bring a new vitality and unique style to their program. Working with him to get rid of his “vibrato” is one of the play’s more comical moments as is Bob’s horrified response to the lyrics of such oldies as “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” “I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad),” and “Bill Grogran’s Goat,” which he calls “the barbershop apocalypse.”
The only thing likely to have the audience wondering is how this hardly “fabulous” quartet got as far as it has in competitions. Bob, the play’s most interesting character, is well prepared to offset the slurs hurled by Phil, whose ignorance with regard to foreigners and their cultural differences is the play’s most compelling, if also its most abrasive, aspect. A digressive part of the plot also involves a possible raid by immigration authorities. The jokes aside, many of them groaners, I could feel the audience becoming less and less receptive and/or tolerant to Phil and the type he shamefully represents in our society.
Standing up to fitness phony Phil after 30 years of being bullied suddenly feels good to both Wally Smith (Wally Dunn), a pudgy pharmacist who is looking for a “pharmacette” through an online dating service, and Howard (Jim Walton). The latter is an accountant with a bedridden wife (unseen) and whose finished basement (nicely furnished with the contestants’ memorabilia by set designer R. Michael Miller) serves as the primary setting for the play that takes place in the present in London, Ohio.
A standout performance and fine singing by Kymal, who is making his George Street Playhouse debut, goes a long way in keeping this play diverting. Broadway veteran Walton is excellent as Howard, whose determination to keep the group together is rewarded as is the support he gets from the also excellent Dunn. Corren, in another George Street Playhouse debut, has to work the hardest to earn our affection as the abrasive Phil. He almost pulls it off by the time we get to the Lipitones Competition Finale, which features a “Sailor’s Hornpipe” by St. Germain. The big question: Will they pull off the win by beating the favorite the Sons of Pitches?”
St. Germain and Marcus have previously worked together on “The Cosby Show.” Their dialogue shows Marcus’ flair for wacky quips, wise cracks, and flippant repartee amid endless bickering. There is otherwise no evidence of the dramatic sensibility that marked such fine plays by St. Germain as “Freud’s Last Session,” “Camping with Henry and Tom,” and “Becoming Dr. Ruth.”
The Fabulous Lipitones, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. through Sunday, December 14, $25 to $68. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.