WELLFLEET — In the new social comedy “The Fabulous Lipitones,” debuting here at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, there’s a rival barbershop quartet called the Sons of Pitches.
If that kind of gag makes you snort — and I’m not suggesting I didn’t — then this sitcom-style night at the theater might be for you.
Don’t be turned off by the barbershop-music theme. That turns out to be an apt plot thickener for the show’s real reason for being: the culture clash that erupts when a paunchy, aging group of singing white guys auditions a worthy new voice after the death of a founding member.
The new singer is named Bob. Which is short for Baba Mati Das.
Beturbaned, dark-skinned, and quite possibly living and working in America illegally, the newcomer, played by Rohan Kymal, is anathema to Phil Rizzardi (Ron Orbach). Phil, an abrasive, out-of-shape fitness club owner, thinks the group should hang it up after the death of Andy Lipinski, who inspired the group’s awful name. (There’s a running joke, one of many, about how the Lipitones’ name veers uncomfortably close to that of a certain cholesterol medicine.)
Howard (D.C. Anderson) and Wally (Wally Dunn) want to keep the group going, and they think “Bob” is a great replacement. They’ve been bulldozed by Phil for 30 years, but now they might be willing to stand up for something.
The set, designed by Ryan McGettigan, is Howard’s suburban basement, where his dreams of singing glory are frozen in time. There are trophies on a shelf and an afghan lying over a chair. A mounted barbershop pole lights up when Howard’s sickly wife needs his help upstairs. Next to the pole is a glossy shot of the Bee Gees, circa 1977.
When the group rehearses its ridiculous, old-timey version of “Night Fever,” Howard sings in a thin falsetto — “praying for this moment to last.” That’s not quite the audience reaction.
But the early musical interludes are meant to establish just how washed-up the group has become, despite having only recently competed in a national competition. If only Phil can get past his antipathy for Bob — “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” he fulminates as he tries to force the vibrato out of the Sikh immigrant’s natural singing style — the Lipitones might feel what it means to approach “fabulous” once again.
The structure of the show is undeniably influenced by the rhythms of decades of television humor, and with good reason: director John Markus worked on “The Cosby Show” with his co-writer, Mark St. Germain.
One gimmick in particular falls flat, an oversize iPhone screen that lowers into view between acts. On it we see, for instance, an overlong series of risqué entries on a pharmacist dating site with screen names like Take With Fluids; Wally, a druggist who still lives with his mother, has been trying to meet women there. It’s an extension of a running gag about Wally’s inability to figure out how his phone works. (Old people!)
The wisecracks and double entendres are as broad as the gulf between these Midwestern schlubs and their gently appealing auditioner. “How can you make harmony” when all they do is bicker? Bob asks at one point. “Music is the opposite of anger.”
Kymal is a revelation; his appearance spins the entire production on its head. And Anderson redeems his thankless earlier vocal showcase when he leads a heartfelt rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer,” as the group finally gets its act together.
In matching fedoras and purple sharkskin suits, the Lipitones take the stage at the nationals to perform the song Howard had always wanted to adapt: the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”
Though Phil earlier has rebuked his partners for their naiveté — “We’re not winners,” he grumbled — it should come as little surprise that they rise to the occasion.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.