Closing Time for In Tandem Theatre
‘The Fabulous Lipitones’ marks the company’s final production
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Chris Flieller (Stasch), Nathan Wesselowski (Pee Wee), and Joe Fransee (Zeke) in In Tandem's 2014 production of 'A Cudahy Caroler Christmas." Photo by Mark Frohna.
The Fabulous Lipitones, a new play by John Markus and Mark St. Germain, celebrates the beauty of being different; much like In Tandem Theatre did for its successful 21-year run as a company.
In Tandem Theatre, founded by husband-and-wife Chris and Jane Flieller, built a reputation for bringing quirky, original works to Milwaukee like A Cudahy Caroler Christmas, which ran for nine non-consecutive seasons and won the hearts of locals by poking fun at Brew City traditions.
The Fabulous Lipitones, which centers around a small-town barbershop quartet learning to fully embrace a new member, will mark the final production for In Tandem.
Although the Fliellers are ending regular seasons at their producing home, the Tenth Street Theatre, they plan to keep In Tandem’s name and potentially bring some of their past productions to other theaters.
“We didn’t want to be remembered as the little old couple who owned that theater for so many years and then finally shut it down,” Jane says. “We wanted to be remembered for doing good work, not slowly dwindling out.”
Steven Marzolf and Angela Iannone in In Tandem's winter 2019 production "The Velocity of Autumn." In a previous interview for the show, Iannone describes In Tandem as "one of her favorite playing spaces." Photo by Mark Frohna.
Chris’s acting and technical background combined with Jane’s experience in stage management, marketing and business, provided a strong foundation for the couple to establish the company. Chris has a master’s degree from UW Milwaukee’s former professional theatre training program and has performed with Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and First Stage. Jane has stage managed for Next Act Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and ComedySportz, plus holds directing credits with South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, Carroll University and Marquette University.
For the first nine years of In Tandem, the couple rented local venues to produce their shows, sometimes renting three or four different locations in one season. Thanks in part to the overwhelming success of the first six runs of A Cudahy Caroler Christmas, the Fliellers secured a permanent home in the lower level of the big red Calvary Church on 10th and Wisconsin, fittingly naming it The Tenth Street Theatre.
The Fleillers describe The Fabulous Lipitones as the perfect note to end on by incorporating humor and heart.
“It’s a great message, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it,” Chris explains. “To a certain extent, one of the themes is the power of music to transform and bring people together.”
The Fabulous Lipitones features In Tandem favorites Steve Koehler (Phil), Nathan Marinan (Howard) and Rick Pendzich (Wally) alongside newbie Ethan Brittingham (Bob). When the founder of the singing quartet named The Fabulous Lipitones drops dead right before a national competition, the three remaining members must scramble to find a replacement. Enter Baba Mati Singh, a.k.a Bob, an immigrant automobile mechanic. Bob is younger than the other members by several decades and wears a turban as a member of the Sikh religion. Bob’s status as an “other” puts the oldest member Phil on edge.
Steve Koehler (left) as Marco the Magician with Shawn Holmes and Sean Anthony Jackson in In Tandem's 2017 production of "Carnival." Photo by Tanya Dhein.
“Phil is the character who represents the people who jump to a conclusion,” says Jane, who is directing The Fabulous Lipitones. “We’ve been exploring questions like ‘what exactly is he feeling the first time he sees Bob and does that surprise him? We’ve been finding places in the script where you can build that character because otherwise you have someone who is so one-dimensional.”
Like their characters in the show, Koehler, Marinan and Pendzich have a history of performing together. “We have this fun kind of shorthand,” Marinan notes. In another parallel to The Fabulous Lipitones, this will be the trio’s first time working with Brittingham, who is making his professional debut with In Tandem. Brittingham is a recent graduate of the American Musical Dramatic Academy in New York City.
Left to right: Chris Flieller as Charlie, Nathan Marinan as Lottie and Elyse Edelman as Vesta in In Tandem Theatre's 2017-2018 holiday production "Scrooge in Rouge." Photo by Mark Frohna.
Playwright John Markus got his inspiration for The Fabulous Lipitones from growing up in the only Jewish family in the small town of London, Ohio. Fascinated with the concept of being an “other,” he wanted to force the characters out of their cultural comfort zones. Markus and his collaborator Mark St. Germain first met as writers for The Cosby Show.
Markus will join Chris, Jody Hirsh and Dr. Swarnjit Arora after the April 28 performance for a panel discussion on the power of music called “Let Us Sing Together.” Hirsch is the Jewish Community Center’s Judaic education director and Arora is a long-time member of Milwaukee’s Sikh community.
“The Barbershop dynamic was a good choice for the show because it’s a group effort,” Brittingham says. ”Not one person can do barbershop, we all have to hold our part. I think throughout the show all the characters definitely learn that.”
“The Fabulous Lipitones,” presented by In Tandem Theatre, runs April 25 – May 19 at the Tenth Street Theatre. For tickets visit intandemtheatre.org or call the box office at 414-271-1371.