A sitcomlike culture-clash play set in rural Ohio could be clichéd and tiresome. A nonironic jukebox musical featuring barbershop quartet tunes sounds potentially dreadful. But surprisingly, Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “The Fabulous Lipitones” — a hybrid mash-up of the two — avoids most of the pitfalls built in to its component parts. The result is a rather delightful, consistently funny and even somewhat poignant theater experience.
Credit must be given to director and playwright John Markus, who along with fellow playwright Mark St. Germain has crafted a light comedy with a steady stream of one-liners that grounds itself in issues of midlife angst while staying contemporary, name-checking modern-day threats such as ISIS. He makes up for weaknesses in his script by casting some winning actors in key roles.
Chief among them is Levin Valayil who plays Bob, a young, turban-wearing newcomer to the United States, who gets invited to join a barbershop quartet by some unsuspecting older white guys. Bob could have ended up a variation on the magical Negro stereotype, but Valayil mixes plenty of wry good humor in with his winning optimism and charming naiveté. His unruffled response to the xenophobia he faces could serve as a primer to bigots everywhere.
The most belligerent of the bigots he faces is Phil (Joe Pabst) who, along with Wally (Ford Flannagan) and Howard (Steve Boschen), has been a member of the Fabulous Lipitones for decades. When the group’s lead singer dies during their performance at the regional barbershop quartet championships, Wally is determined to find a replacement who can help them win at the nationals. Phil, on the other hand, is ready to retire, a sentiment only reinforced when that replacement looks like he’s going to be Bob, whom Phil fears may be a Muslim terrorist.
The process of indoctrinating Bob into the ways of barbershop provides many opportunities for comedic cross-cultural misunderstandings as well as the performance of several classics, such as “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Musical director Stephen Rudlin has polished these four voices to near-perfection and, while the songs may be old-fashioned, they’re still fun to see performed.
The sitcom undergirding of the show (both playwrights wrote for “The Cosby Show”) robs it of some emotional resonance. Though Flannagan tries hard, Wally remains more a comedic device than an actual character, his incompetence with a cell phone a too-cute plot contrivance. Pabst gets a little more to work with and manages to add some dimension to Phil. The heart of the show is Howard, the low-key, indecisive and romantic member of the white-guy trio, whom Boschen infuses with authenticity and warmth. It is Howard’s journey that will pull at your heartstrings.
Virginia Rep’s technical team has done another exceptional job, most distinctively Terrie Powers, whose set design is replete with telling details. Between the Old Milwaukee beer signs and the Bee Gees songbook teed up at the piano, Powers has expertly captured the ambiance of the standard Midwestern basement.
“The Fabulous Lipitones” may not exactly be revolutionary, but its confrontation of racism, even in a lighthearted, jukeboxy way, gives it an appealing tension that should warm musical snobs who otherwise wouldn’t give it a second look. S
“The Fabulous Lipitones” plays at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, through Oct. 25. Tickets and information are available at va-rep.org.