At the Mercury Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – We can stipulate at the outset that “Shear Madness” is a comic murder mystery that will do anything to get a laugh. It may also be the most popular show internationally over the last 50 years with productions, many of them setting performance records, seemingly in every major city in the solar system.
“Shear Madness” carved out its own place in Chicago theater history by running for 17 years (1982-1999). The comedy back now, scheduled to play through the end of March at the Mercury Theater, but if past history is any guide, “Shear Madness” will be around longer, maybe much longer.
“Shear Madness” is the inspired brainchild of Bruce Jordan and his partner Marilyn Abrams. In the mid 1970’s they acquired the rights to a serious German murder mystery called “Scherenschitt,” written in 1963. The couple saw comic potential in the play, acquired all the rights to the property, and opened it as “Shear Madness” in 1978. The team has been laughing all the way to the bank ever since.
The play takes place in a barbershop/hair salon (hence the clever title). There are six characters, four of them suspects in the off stage murder of a concert pianist named Isabel Czerny. The show consists of a doofus police inspector and his ninny assistant grilling the suspects to find the killer. The production’s chief gimmick is bringing the audience into the action, assisting the cops in their inquiries by participating in the interrogations from their seats (and in the lobby at intermission), finally voting on which of the four suspects did the deed. The identity thus can vary from performance to performance at the audience’s pleasure, meaning a new killer can be elected each night, expanding the commercial potentials of the plot. If you don’t like tonight’s murderer designate, come back and help pick a different one.
The cast works from a basic script that is drenched in puns, malapropisms, and primarily gay sexual innuendo broad enough to make the mind reel. Topical references abound throughout the evening, taken from the latest headlines, including some negative references to the Chicago police that might be a bit too close to the bone for this type of larky comedy. Still, political correctness is the first man down, and as for nuance and subtlety, never heard of it. The production does not abound in method style realism. Mugging and eye rolling and slapstick govern the acting from the opening moments until about 10 minutes from the end of the show, when the plot suddenly takes the murder investigation seriously.
The miracle of “Shear Madness” is that all the chaos and nonsense mesh so well. The show, for all its low comedy shtick, is a crafty piece of work. Most of the dialogue is genuinely funny, more so than the visual gags. The verbal zingers whiz by so quickly that the clinkers, and they are numerous, are swept aside by the energy of the performances. The audience very quickly gets caught up in all the calculated silliness and willingly giggles at even the corniest quips and gags.
What is most impressive about “Shear Madness” is the way the show seduces the spectators into treating the murder investigation like it is really happening. Encouraged from the stage, viewers shout out questions and observations, pointing out inconsistencies in each suspect’s responses. I must have seen “Shear Madness” at least a half dozen times during its 17-year Chicago run and the audience reaction never varied when it came to vigorously showing interest in solving the crime. And so it was on opening night at the Mercury Theater.
The show would not work without a talented cast gifted with selling the broad humor without apology. The actors don’t perform like they are slumming, and their respect for the jokes and antics communicates itself to the viewers, who are lured into accepting all the nonsense because the actors don’t condescend the material.
First among equals in the six-member ensemble is Joe Popp as police inspector Nick Rossetti. Popp is a veteran of the role and he has developed a mastery at controlling the often vociferous audience reactions. The role requires a considerable level of improvisation skill and Popp was ready with a wisecrack or compliment to keep the audience interjections moving at a necessarily brisk pace.
The cast includes a pair of long-time Chicagoland A list actors in Ed Kross and Mary Robin Roth. I have always considered Kross the best comic actor in local theater over the last three decades and he is at his best eating up the role of swishy barber Tony Whitcomb. Roth’s credentials include starring performances in many major Chicagoland musical revivals but she demonstrates her comic acting chops as the wealthy society matron (and murder suspect) Mrs. Schubert. The remaining suspects are David Sajewich as a suspicious salon customer and Brittany Parker is the hairdresser who is deeper than she first appears. The cast makes it all look easy but they provide a high level of timing and quick wit that saves the improbable vehicle from descending into lame farce. For this boon, much credit must go to director Warner Crocker, who orchestrates the staging with such pace that the viewer doesn’t have time to ponder matters of logic and probability.
The action is enclosed within Ben Lipinski’s shop interior set. Kristof Jarezic designed the lighting, Rachel Boylan the costumes, and Carl Wahlstrom the sound. They combine to establish an environment that lends the hi-jinks a realistic and detailed physical look that nicely grounds the rampant nonsense of the action.
By what standards should a review rate a show like “Shear Madness?” The production makes no pretense of offering comedy at the Moliere level of sophistication. It just keeps the comic bits coming. If one doesn’t work, the next one, arriving a second or two later, likely will be a dilly. The Mercury Theater revival nicely captures the spirit of the show, so people who like this sort of thing will be delighted. More resistant viewers should still admire the skill and professionalism of the production and grant the show credit for succeeding on its own terms. Can so many long runs in so many cities in so many countries over so many years be wrong? I don’t think so.
“Shear Madness”gets a rating of.
“Shear Madness” runs through March 29 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $80. Visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com or call 773 325 1700.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. February 2020
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