Danny Williams has years of experience in choral directing — in particular, as the founder and director of the Black Bear Men’s Chorus at the University of Maine. But even as a seasoned vocal professional, he was a bit daunted by the prospect of learning all the ins and outs of barbershop quartet singing in less than two months.
“It’s a whole other beast,” said Williams.
Learn it he did, however, in anticipation of being the musical director for Penobscot Theatre Company’s 2017-2018 season-opening musical, “The Fabulous Lipitones,” written by John Markus and Mark St. Germain. The show is set to premiere Sept. 7 at the Bangor Opera House, and will run through Sept. 24.
Earlier this summer, Williams attended Harmony University, a weeklong barbershop singing intensive held each July at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. For eight days, he lived and breathed barbershop. And now, he’s used that knowledge to shape the musical direction of “The Fabulous Lipitones,” a charming, funny story of a barbershop quartet in Ohio that loses its tenor unexpectedly, and the scramble to replace him that ensues.
“I had minimal experience in the barbershop world until I went to Harmony University,” said Williams, who Bangor-area performing arts fans likely know best as the executive director of the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. “What I learned was how difficult a score this show was going to be. There’s no instruments — it’s all a cappella. Nobody doubles a part. It is as exposed and challenging a musical score as you’re ever going to find. With people that have never sung barbershop before. And they have to sound like they’ve been singing together for 30 years. It was a doozy.”
The stars of “The Fabulous Lipitones” are the cheerful but driven Wally (PTC stalwart Dominick Varney, last seen in “The Full Monty”), the aggressive, grouchy Phil (Doug Meswarb, last seen in PTC’s “Papermaker”) and the wishy-washy pushover Howard (DC Anderson, seen on Broadway and off-Broadway stages in New York, and who has appeared in other regional productions of “Lipitones”).
Directed by Michael Marotta, who also directed “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” for PTC, the show’s script, story and music attracted him. It features a combination of a handful of original songs and well-known vocal standards from the early 20th century. They range from pop hits like “Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” to patriotic songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
In the same way that “Forever Plaid,” another vocal-heavy musical that was wildly popular at Penobscot Theatre a few years back, brought together four disparate character personalities into a delightful whole, so does “The Fabulous Lipitones.”
“I loved it. It’s a group of nerds who have been singing together all their lives,” said Marotta. “My oldest brother was a fan of the Lettermen, the Vogues, the Four Tops, so there was a lot of record playing of these four male voices in my house when I was growing up … and the script is very, very funny. It’s a case of ‘one of these things is not like the other.’”
When the group’s longtime tenor drops dead after singing a particularly high C, the guy they replace him with is anything but the typical middle-aged Ohio white guy — on the phone, he’s just Bob (played by New York-based actor Danish Farooqui), but in person, he’s a man of Indian descent, wearing a Sikh turban. He may not look like the other three members of the group, but boy, can he sing.
“It shows that there’s more than one way to make harmony,” said Marotta. “It’s just a really sweet, funny show, with really wonderful music.”
The music is likely familiar to older audiences, and the songs are certainly accessible and sweet. The technical challenge of singing barbershop, however, is anything but accessible.
“When we rehearse, we sing facing each other, so everyone can hear everyone else’s part,” said Williams. “Everyone has their own part, but it has to end up sounding like a cohesive unit. It’s exceptionally challenging.”
“I have experience singing a cappella with the Maine Steiners, for sure,” said Dominick Varney, referring to UMaine’s popular men’s acapella group. “But this is just a whole other level. This is beyond things like Pentatonix. It’s just voice … It’s been really challenging and fun to learn it.”
Those close harmonies will ring out in a Bangor Opera House auditorium that’s recently undergone a major facelift. After nearly a year spent fundraising, last month the entire theater received a new coat of paint and new LED lighting, the original wood flooring was refinished and new carpet was laid down. Most importantly, PTC staff tore out 300 old, worn-out seats that date back to the mid-1960s, replacing them with much more ergonomically pleasing seats — which PTC executive director Mary Budd delightedly points out “aren’t held together with duct tape,” and are each labeled with the theater donor that sponsored each chair.
“The Fabulous Lipitones” will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays, Sept. 7 through 24. Tickets are available online at penobscottheatre.org, by calling 942-3333, or in person at the Bangor Opera House box office.