‘Shear Madness’ in need of a contemporary makeover

More seasoned audience members might remember “Shear Madness” from its previous Chicago incarnation — a 17-year run from 1982 to 1999 that totaled more than 7,000 performances.

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Salon owner Tony Whitcomb (Ed Kross, left) is questioned by detective Mikey Thomas (Sam Woods) in a scene from “Shear Madness” at the Mercury Theater.

Salon owner Tony Whitcomb (Ed Kross, left) is questioned by detective Mikey Thomas (Sam Woods) in a scene from “Shear Madness” at the Mercury Theater.

Brett Beiner

There’s certainly a method to “Shear Madness,” the comedic murder mystery now running at the Mercury Theater Chicago. Once the murder has occurred and the suspects have been questioned by the detectives, the house lights come up and the audience is asked to pitch in. Between reconstructing the events of the first act, asking their own questions, and even fingering their favored culprit, “Shear Madness” turns its attendees into judge, jury, and executioner … you know, in a fun way.

‘Shear Madness’

Shear Madness

When: Through March 29

Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Avenue

Tickets: $40-$80

Info: MercuryTheaterChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission

The play concerns the goings-on one fated day — really a few fated hours — at the Shear Madness hair salon. As the salon’s flamboyant owner, Tony Whitcomb (Ed Kross), banters back and forth with sassy stylist Barbara DeMarco (Brittany D. Parker), her wealthy client Mrs. Shubert (Mary Robin Roth), and a mysterious, taciturn visitor named Eddie Lawrence (David Sajewich), the sounds of Tony’s landlady’s piano playing frequently interrupt their shenanigans.

When the landlady, Isabel Czerny, turns up dead, a pair of detectives — Nick Rossetti (Joe Popp) and his associate Mikey Thomas (Sam Woods) — pore over the odd behaviors and random details that have piled up among the four salon inhabitants. Czerny was a former world-famous concert pianist-turned-recluse who had befriended Barbara and made her the sole beneficiary in her will. Lawrence, who claims to be in antiques, was involved in shady dealings with Czerny, possibly even blackmail. Tony hated the old woman’s piano playing so much that he threatened to end her life. As for Mrs. Shubert, nobody that wealthy can ever be fully trusted.

More seasoned audience members might remember “Shear Madness” from its previous Chicago incarnation — a 17-year run from 1982 to 1999 that totaled more than 7,000 performances. Meanwhile, the show’s original production in Boston opened in 1980 and is still running. Like a contemporary (sort of) version of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” — albeit by way of “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” — writers Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan can certainly point to such data as proof that “Shear Madness” is a winning formula.

Sam Woods (from left), Joe Popp, Ed Kross, Mary Robin Roth, Brittany D. Parker and David Sajewich star in “Shear Madness” at the Mercury Theater.

Sam Woods (from left), Joe Popp, Ed Kross, Mary Robin Roth, Brittany D. Parker and David Sajewich star in “Shear Madness” at the Mercury Theater. | Brett Beiner

Brett Beiner

But the results from this new production, directed by Warner Crocker, suggest the formula could use an update. Scratch that: It’s in desperate need of one. Not the murder mystery part, which is tailor-made for the age of true crime podcasts and reddit sleuths; nor the audience interactivity part, which Crocker’s cast handles swimmingly with the delightful combo of generosity and puckish wit. No, it’s the jokes. Sweet lord in heaven, the jokes. A near-constant barrage of tired puns, bewildering malapropisms, pop culture references of varying freshness, and enough instances of “insert local gag here” jokes to choke Humboldt Park’s own Chance the Snapper.

Oh, did that joke make you cringe? Exactly.

The unbearable hoariness of the script becomes even more apparent once the cast steps away from it and into conversation with the audience. Once the house lights are up, the show lights up, too. Led by Popp, who makes an excellent emcee, the actors engage in some truly magnificent crowd work. The detectives are playfully earnest while the suspects are playfully antagonistic, and everyone’s energy is infectious. One ad-libbed moment during this sequence caused the entire cast on opening night to break down in laughter — and the audience was more than happy to join right in.

“Shear Madness” has a strong gimmick, and the show knows it — that’s part of the problem. It openly courts its audiences to return in hopes of seeing a different outcome. And yet, the show’s first 45 minutes are painful. Excruciatingly so. There’s only so much a talented cast like this one can do when they’re making quips about Angela Merkel’s sex hair or knowing their “constipational rights.”

The show has enjoyed a successful 40-year run in various locales, so who’s to say it won’t slouch its way toward another 40? Sheer madness, indeed.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.

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