There are two words you should know about Shear Madness: Nathan Halvorson. Do not miss him. He's a man on fire. He alone gives reason to see the Fine Arts Center's production of the classic play.
The show, by Paul Pörtner, originally opened in Boston in January 1980, growing to a cultural phenomenon, breaking numerous records for long-running acts. It still runs today, 36 years later. And were this staging not closing Oct. 16, I have no doubt it would break records here as well.
One reason for Shear Madness' success: No two performances of this durable murder mystery/comedy play out the same. That's because the audience must solve the mystery. They ask questions, get answers, and then vote for their favorite culprit. The show opens as a couple of customers arrive at the Shear Madness unisex salon. Landlady Isabel Czerny lives upstairs, but somehow gets stabbed in the neck with thinning shears early in the first act.
At the performance we saw, our enthusiastic crowd raised a ruckus about the suspects. Police Lieutenant Nick Rosetti (played by stage veteran C. Clayton Blackwell) was repeatedly forced to use his police whistle for crowd control.
Halvorson, also the FAC associate director of performing arts, creates a flamboyant, feminine Tony Whitcomb. His gestures, gait, and facial expressions, although stereotypical, provoke instant laughter. I found myself watching him even when he had no lines. He's full-time, flat-out, full-speed Tony, delivering the funniest gay character at the FAC since Sammy Gleason wowed us in Buyer and Cellar earlier this year. If Halvorson and Gleason ever get cast in the same show, stand back, I want a front row seat.
The rest of Shear Madness' cast has the difficult assignment of playing off Halvorson's antics. They do a commendable job of demonstrating their own homicidal tendencies. Rebecca Myers (Barbara Demarco) struts around the stage in her blue dress and red stiletto boots. She could be a stylist at Floyd's Rock and Roll Barbershop; she's as sexy and sassy as any of them. She could also be a murderer. Birgitta DePree (Mrs. Shubert) adds ample attitude. When asked how she takes her husband, she replies "with Prozac."
Michael Lee's Eddie Lawrence is a devious antiques dealer and though Nathan Ferrick (Officer Mike Thomas) plays a cop, not a suspect, his role requires him to let Halvorson near him with scissors.
That danger subsides to humor peppered with local references and political wisecracks. The witty repartee plays out so naturally that it's difficult to tell what's scripted and what's improvised. I had tears running down my face in the first act.
The cast appears so well prepared for improvisation that they don't even skip a beat when a wall hanging accidentally comes loose, sending a bottle of hair product off a shelf and into the first row. (Christopher Sheley's set resembles a gorgeous salon, but it functions a little wobbly.) As Rebecca Myers told the woman in the front row who caught the bottle, "next time you get a discount."
Whether you get a discount or not, Shear Madness rates as a priceless comedy. And when it's over, you may never look at your barber or stylist the same way again.