If you think you’re familiar with barbershop quartets, then Goodspeed Musicals is out to blow your mind.
Their fully-staged workshop production of “The Fabulous Lipitones,” playing at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester through June 2, is designed to take everything you think you know about this quintessential American performance art and turn it on its head. “Anyone who comes to the show expecting something corny or square or unimaginatively executed will be surprised by what they see on stage,” explains John Markus, one of the two co-authors of the new work.
Markus’s own credentials should be the first clue that this musical will approach its subject from a different angle. An Emmy winner writer, he wrote or co-wrote 67 episodes of the landmark television series, “The Cosby Show,” where he ultimately became its show runner, winning a Peabody and two Humanitas prizes in the process. He subsequently co-created the Cosby spin-off “A Different World” which ran for six seasons. He also co-wrote the Emmy-nominated Ellen Degeneres episode “Ellen: Is She or Isn’t She.”
His co-author on “The Fabulous Lipitones” is the award winning playwright Mark St. Germain, whose works include “Freud’s Last Session,” which recently completed a two-year run off-Broadway, “Campint with Henry and Tom,” and “The Best of Enemies,” which premiered two years ago at Barrington Stage Company and has subsequently been produced at regional theaters around the country. In addition to having a theater named in his honor at Barrington Stage, he was responsible for one of that theater’s biggest hits last year with the premiere of his “Dr. Ruth: All the Way,” about the unknown remarkable life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer. In addition to the Goodspeed workshop, St. Germain is also preparing for a revised version of this work, now called “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which is set to open at Hartford’s Theaterworks later this month.
St. Germain indicated that the idea of a play about a barbershop quartet had been bouncing around in his head for a while, with the plot focusing on what would happen if one of their key members passed away as the group was preparing to defend its title at a national competition. He felt something was missing from the concept, so he turned to his comedy writer friend, Markus, to help come up with a unique innovative angle.
Markus confessed that he had been taking a number of taxis around New York City and had gotten to know a few Sikh cabdrivers and in conversations with them learned about the compassionate and egalitarian roots of their religious faith. As a result, he came up with the idea that the replacement for the fourth member of the quartet would be a Sikh and that part of the story would revolve around how he and his fellow singers would learn to adapt to each other.
“We have an affection for small-town America,” Markus said, explaining the setting for the musical. “The idea of combining small town values with Sikh values appealed to us, while tension would rise from the mutual suspicion that would arise among them.”
“The surviving quartet members have no idea that he is a Sikh,” St. Germain added. “All they know is that he is a garage mechanic who is recommended to them who they then audition over the telephone, where they are impressed by his beautiful angelic voice. Once they get together, the conflict focuses on whether they will be able to survive each other and compete successfully.”
Markus sees barbershop harmony as a metaphor. “Nothing is closer than barbershop harmony,” he stated. “The actual notes that create the right chords are quite close to each other, only a step or a step and a half away from each other. Barbershop singing is unforgiving if that closeness is not precise.”
“I grew up watching Lawrence Welk,” Markus continues, “where I learned to admire barbershop singing and appreciate the vocal demands. But in the interim, the scope and nature of barbershop singing has changed dramatically.” He cites television competitions such as “The Great American Sing-Off” as popularizing a capella music, and as he says, “the originator of a capella was barbershop singing.” The way barbershop has evolved today, he adds, “is pure vocal acrobatics. The members are daredevils in what they do together.”
The creators, along with their director, Gordon Greenberg, relied a great deal on both the Sikh and barbershop communities for input and reaction as they were putting the story together, and have consistently received positive feedback from both groups. A previous run-through received a positive write-up in a regional Sikh newspaper, while members of the barbershop community are excited about seeing the production. In fact, various barbershop quartets from around the region will be entertaining theatergoers as they arrive at the Norma Terris before many of the performances.
And with Markus’s background in television comedy, audiences can be assured that the show will be terrifically funny, explains St. Germain. “What we have is a show for people who love barbershop music which at the same time works as a show for people who hate barbershop music.”
Barbershop music, Markus elaborates, has changed from the “Lyda Rose” that theatergoers encountered in the musical “The Music Man.” “If you have assumptions as to what qualifies as a barbershop number, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” he says. As evidenced by the popularity of a capella groups, the music in “The Fabulous Lipitones” encompasses traditional music as well as popular American music from the 20th century and into the 21st century. When asked if one of Lady Gaga’s songs was included in the show, the creators laughed and quickly replied, “No, but you’re close!” while retaining enough mystery so that audiences will be pleasantly surprised by the music they will hear.
And for those who envision barbershoppers as just four guys standing and singing, Markus says that there are additional surprises in store. Today’s a capella groups encompass a lot of movement and the show’s choreographer, Connor Gallagher, has, Markus reports, “infused the piece with a tremendous energy and great humor.”
While St. Germain is a well-honed theatrical veteran, “The Fabulous Lipitones” represents Markus’s foray in writing directly for the stage after 30+ years in television. “I am practically giddy every morning as we work on the show here at the Goodspeed,” he relates. “I am smitten with theater. It’s intoxicating. I’m used to working five days on an episode and then its on to a different story for next week, but here we have the luxury of rehearsing several weeks with the cast, as well as revising and improving the material depending on audience reaction.”
And both creators are pleased at how the four-member cast, who have never sung together before, have jelled into a genuine barbershop quartet. “It’s been great to hear the real barbershop sound emerge from our cast.”
For tickets and information, contact the Goodspeed box office at 860.873.8668 or visit the Goodspeed website at www.goodspeed.org. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.