Review: Shear Madness: Much mirth at the Mercury

It’s said that laughter is the best medicine. Well, you can now get a 90-day prescription in one night: just attend the long-running (40 years in Boston!) comedic murder mystery/improv show, Shear Madness, now playing through March 29 at the Mercury Theater Chicago.

With all of the action taking place in a brightly colored hair salon – except for the off-stage murder audience members help solve – this show is, pardon the pun, a cut above. Yes, Shear Madness is to dye, er, die for.

For those who didn’t catch this show years ago at Chicago’s Blackstone or downstairs at the Chicago Theater, the premise is simple: a murder occurs above a somewhat wacky beauty salon called – you guessed it – Shear Madness. Who stabbed Isabel, the landlady/famous concert pianist? Was it the wise-cracking man-crazy hair stylist, Tony Whitcomb (Ed Kross)?

His secretive, but flirty salon colleague, Barbara DeMarco (Brittany D. Parker)? Long-time customer and rich society matron Mrs. Schubert (Mary Robin Roth)? Antiques dealer Eddie Lawrence (David Sajewich) whose reason for visiting the salon isn’t clear?

And what about the two customers who come in for a haircut and a shave, respectively, Mikey Thomas and Nick Rossetti – are they just in need of a trim or do they have other reasons for being at the salon?

The answer to the last question is revealed shortly after Isabel’s body is discovered in her apartment. Mikey (Sam Woods) and Nick (Joe Popp) identify themselves as undercover Chicago police officers who are determined to solve this murder. But the name of the killer, timing of the murder, motive, etc. are all up in the air, so Nick proceeds to break the “fourth wall,” having the lights brought up over the audience.

It’s now our responsibility to help, initially by correcting/challenging any character whose movements or dialogue during a re-enactment of salon activity don’t sync with what we’ve previously witnessed.

Popp even brings his “Nick” character to the lobby during intermission to allow “witnesses” in the audience to raise questions or point out discrepancies in statements made by the other characters.

After intermission, Nick allows us to pose questions directly to Tony, Barbara, Mrs. Schubert and Eddie to try to figure out whodunit. A subsequent audience vote on the murderer’s identity determines how the rest of the story plays out.

So far, that probably sounds like a standard murder mystery with audience interaction.

What makes Shear Madness stand out is the almost non-stop laughs ranging from physical humor (the first several minutes involve no dialogue, but a lot of physical humor with Mikey having unexpected interactions with both Tony and Barbara) to contemporary jokes and wordplay (e.g., Isabel being so old that one character says, “I think she used to babysit for Bernie Sanders;” Eddie calling Nick by the last name Rosacea, being corrected, and then saying “Sorry, that was a little rash;” Mrs. Schubert’s occasional malapropisms like “Tony Whitcomb is a genital liar!”). Other lines include references to Joe Biden, Cicero, the Blackhawks, cats named Bill and Hillary and even attorney Peter Francis Geraci.

The Actors’ Equity cast of six, under the direction of Warner Crocker, is clearly having the time of their lives, with an unexpected kiss at one point on press night resulting in guffaws throughout the theater, including on stage, as the equally surprised cast attempted to stifle their own laughter. For the 98% of the time the cast was in control, they did an amazing job reacting to a wide variety of audience questions and comments with improvised dialogue.

The combination of prepared lines, improv, and an audience-determined ending means no two performances will be exactly alike, and that’s the fun of it all. If you’ve never experienced Shear Madness or it’s been a while, don’t laugh off the idea of going to the Mercury – it’d be sheer madness to miss it.

• Paul Lockwood is an enthusiastic singer, frequent local theater actor, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, and past president of TownSquare Players. Recent shows include Morning’s at Seven, 42nd Street, Once Upon a Mattress and On Golden Pond.

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