By Nathaniel Cayanan
Today, taking offense at the mere mention of race has practically become habitual, sadly; making it difficult for writers (especially white ones) to talk about race in their works. This is what makes The Fabulous Lipitones so fascinating.
The play opens with the funeral of a member of The Fabulous Lipitones, a barbershop quartet comprised of aging white men, all of whom struggle not only with the impending competition which could very well be their last, but also their own personal problems. Without their fourth and at the brink of disbanding, Howard (John Racca), Wally (Steve Gunderson) and Phil (Dennis Holland) agree to have a mysterious mechanic, Bob (Asante Gunewardena), whom they hear sing beautifully over the phone, audition. But, when Bob arrives, they discover not just man who can sing, but a dark-skinned, Sikh man dressed with a turban, who … well, I won’t spoil the surprise.
Director and playwright John Markus, most famous for his writing on sitcoms such as The Cosby Show and The Larry Sanders Show, gives us a story that goes from innocently safe to provocative in a matter of seconds once Bob hits the stage. Markus, along with co-writer Mark St. Germain, explores clashing cultures and personal bias, while, surprisingly, maintaining every character’s personal appeal and charm.
Interesting here is the symbolism of The Fabulous Lipitones. In this case, barbershop represents the old way, one of the remaining traditions of old white men, untainted by the growing globalization that surrounds us. The trio’s (mostly Holland’s Phil) reaction to Bob’s appearance and the group’s reluctant acceptance of him represent the xenophobia of those afraid of change.
The stereotypical aspects of the show, i.e. Bob’s strong accent and Phil’s initial lumping of Indians and Muslims into one group, are pushed quite hard at times, but done so purposely.
Such creative choices and dialogue challenge the audience’s assumptions not only about the characters, but the writers. At first, we could easily point the finger at the creative forces behind this production and proclaim racism, but then realize that the writers’ intentions are good and the play actually has an overall theme of tolerance, leaving us to question our own open-mindedness (or lack thereof).
Sure, the storyline of people learning more about a new, strange culture and becoming more tolerant in the process is somewhat familiar, but, with an elaborately designed set, wonderful harmonizing from the quartet and solid writing, The Fabulous Lipitones remains charmingly entertaining and earnestly insightful from beginning to end.
The Fabulous Lipitones will play until Aug. 23rd on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $25 to $49 (group discounts are available). The Colony Theatre is located on 555 North Third Street (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall. For tickets, call the Colony Theatre Box Office at (818) 558-7000 ext. 15 or online at ColonyTheatre.org.