Wednesday, November 26, 2014


By Ruth Ross

Barbershop quartet music—unaccompanied four-part close harmony sung as if by one voice— had its heyday in the early decades of the twentieth century and experienced a revival in the late 30s, complete with  regional and national competitions, trophies and even a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. If you've never heard barbershop music, think Meredith Willson's "Lida Rose" from The Music Man.

Come to think of it, if you've never heard this distinct American art form, get on over to the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick for The Fabulous Lipitones, a gentle, if formulaic, comedy about a quartet of middle-aged men who, when their lead singer drops dead while singing a heart-stopping high B-flat at a regional finals, search for a replacement before the Nationals. Serendipitously, during a phone call with the owner of the local garage, they hear the dulcet tones of a mechanic named Bob and ask him to come over for an audition. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that upon meeting him, he is not quite what they had expected. What ensues is a comedic tale about the serious subject of battling stereotypes, misunderstandings and pitch-perfect harmony.

The three remaining Lipitones—Phil Rizzardi, Howard Dunphy and Wally Smith—have sung together since they were in high school. Each corresponds to a type: Phil is a Tom Jones-wannabe who imagines he's popular with the ladies; Howard, a rather docile man who cares for an ailing wife, finds an outlet in barbershop music that helps him cope; and Wally is a pharmacist who, in his sixties, still lives with his ancient mother (and is probably still a virgin). Such stock characters might sink a lesser comedy, but the terrific acting, spot-on comedic timing and amazing voices, along with snappy (if often cringe-inducing) dialogue, help make The Fabulous Lipitones an immeasurably entertaining experience.

Donald Corren (above, right) is splendidly obnoxious as Phil, proprietor of a gym and tanning salon and wearer of an awful striped toupee! He struts around the stage like the macho guy he thinks he is, puts down everyone who disagrees with him and gets to utter some of the most bigoted dialogue you'll ever hear. That this talk comes out of the mouth of an ignoramus blunts its edge, and Corren's Phil redeems himself at the end. Wally Dunn (above, left) plays Wally Smith with a great feel for comedy. He makes outlandish pronouncements with a wide-eyed naiveté one would not expect to hear from a 60-something man. Dunn’s portrayal of Wally's experiences with online dating (a new thing for him) are especially hysterical. Jim Walton's Howard (above, center) is the peace-maker, the generous soul open to new experiences, even if he's pretty much locked in the house caring for his ill wife. His love of barbershop is palpable (he'd love to sing sea chanties!), and as the ringleader of the group, he makes us love it too. Phil may say, "Doo wop is dead; [barbershop] is extinct," but once these guys start to sing, a wave of nostalgia washes over the audience.

YouTube sensation Rohan Kymal as Bob (right, second from right) almost steals the show from these three Broadway veterans. His energy and enthusiasm are infectious. His Bob is unafraid to try new things and jumps into four-part harmony with élan! Kymal refuses to make Bob a stereotype, and for that we are grateful. Of course, playwrights John Markus and Mark St. Germain are to be commended for a smart script that rises above the ordinary, and Michael Mastro's direction keeps the gags coming without letting the proceedings descend into a one-joke play.

R. Michael Miller's set personifies the life these men lead in London, Ohio (a farm town 40 miles west of Columbus); Esther Arroyo's costumes fit the characters, time and place very well, and Christopher J. Bailey's lighting and Scott Killian's sound round out the fine production values. Michael Lichtefeld's snappy choreography adds to the fun.

Producing new plays—especially new musicals—is risky, but the intrepid George Street Playhouse has often done so to great success, witness [title of show] a few seasons back, and now The Fabulous Lipitones. Barbershop music may no longer be in style, but good acting always is. Thank you to the George Street Playhouse for reminding us about the importance of harmony.

The Fabulous Lipitones will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through December 14. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit online at  

Photos by T. Charles Erickson.