BWW Review: SHEAR MADNESS at Ivoryton Playhouse
It's hard to argue with 40 years of success.
But "Shear Madness," the madcap murder mystery comedy that lets its audience vote each night on the identity of the perpetrator, owes a lot of its popularity to the show's willingness to update itself on essentially a daily basis, so that the jokes and setting feel as fresh and exhilarating as possible. After all, the show started nearly 40 years ago in Boston, where you can still find it running at the venerable Charles Playhouse today.
For example, in the production now being offered as part of the Ivoryton (CT) Playhouse's 2019 season through October 8, includes a punch line as current as that afternoon's news, allowing actor Jordan Ahnquist, playing the owner of a hair salon conveniently named "Shear Madness," to surprise fellow performer Patrick Noonan with an on-target, audience pleasing Act I curtain line. (The gloat on Ahnquist's face clearly indicated that he had been waiting since he listened to the news that afternoon to incorporate it into the show.)
To its credit, the Playhouse has wisely mounted this production under the direction of Bob Lohrman, who has been the Resident Director of the "Shear Madness" company at D.C.'s Kennedy Center, which is now in its 31st year. He has cast the comedy with a number of veterans of various companies of the show, including a few who helped launch the show's New York outing several years aback. The effort on stage in Ivoryton plays like a well-oiled machine, with the show's scripted pratfalls, sight gags and plot convolutions, all devised by playwright Paul Portner with an assist from original director Bruce Jordan, mixing well with current event updates, ad libs and unanticipated audience responses, that all contribute to a slightly different experience each evening.
Of course, Portner's original script has been judiciously updated over the years, as what may have been funny 40 years ago is no longer so funny today. New brand names have been added appropriately and the show accommodates such intervening inventions as the cell phone and-it pains me to write this-the answering machine. Plus the presence of certain anachronistic props, including a small portable tape deck, now need to be carefully explained since they still play a necessary role in plot development.
The freshness is also assured by the game cast's energetic commitment to the material, offering no indication that the humor or nutty chaos bear a 40-yearshistory. This is made more enjoyable by the inclusion of a variety of local references to area businesses, restaurants and individuals, since the program indicates that the setting is the "Shear Madness Hair Styling Salon" located on Main Street in nearby Essex.
A few cracks in the show's carefully evolved façade are still nonetheless apparent, including the one-note caricature of the gay hairdresser or the eventual presence of two male detectives, who reflect the style of 70's cop shows rather than the more gender and racial inclusiveness of today's crime teams.
But ultimately none of that really matters. If you approach "Shear Madness" as a chance to just sit back, relax and let the jokes and farcical situations gently wash over you, then there is little chance that you will be disappointed. The aforementioned Ahnquist makes shop owner Tommy Whitcomb an endearing presence, with a comeback or double entendre always at the ready. He spars marvelously with his assistant, the Brooklyn-accented Barbara DeMarco, deliciously played by Siobhan Fitzgerald, whose sass and irreverence nicely compliments Ahnquist's occasional frenzy.
Their customers include the snooty but lovable town maven, Mrs. Shubert, played with suitable haughtiness and self-satisfaction by Lisa McMillan, and the impatient investment advisor, Eddie Lawrence, payed with growing frustration and anticipation by Bil Mootos. There are also two other customers who raise at least the audience's suspicions, Lev Harvey's fastidious white collar worker, and the apparently working class Nick O'Brien of Patrick O'Brien, who must undergo a painful and awkward shave before assuming a more authoritative role in trying to solve the mystery at hand.
As anticipated, most of those present in the salon ultimately reveal a motive in the mysterious death of the older woman who lives on the second floor above the shop, if indeed there was a murder at all. There are lot of frantic exits and entrances leading up to the discovery of the death, from bloody handprints to discarded potential weapons to odd burning smells, about which the audience is then questioned, since we have been the only ones to witness everything that happened on stage. The cast remains playful as they try to throw the audience off and shift suspicion to another character-while also reacting to some of the audience members' more audacious suggestions.
Just as essential to the fulfillment of the evening is Daniel Nischan's remarkably detailed salon set which stretches across the entire proscenium while accommodating all of the antics of the cast and the shuffling of the clues. Most memorable is the interplay between Ahnquist and Noonan which contributes significantly to the enjoyment of the evening.
Naturally, there will be no revealing of the ultimate perpetrator or perpetrators of the crime-if there really was one-to insure the enjoyment of future audiences, many of whom will, as has been done in the past, will come back again and again to discover some of the additional permutations and possibilities that can occur on any given night.
For further information, contact the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860.767.78318.