Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in a hair salon in Phoenix (one of the many localized references specific to this production) the play follows the actions of four key suspects in the murder of the upstairs concert pianist and landlady. We see the action unfold before, during and after the murder, and then the audience gets involved in the plot by being allowed to question the suspects and vote on whom they believe the murderer is. The four stereotypical suspects are the somewhat flaming hairdresser and owner of the shop Tony Whitcomb; his ditsy, sexy assistant Barbara DeMarco; wealthy, elderly customer Mrs. Schubert; and antique dealer Eddie Lawrence, who doesn't seem to be at all who he says he is. With undercover police lieutenant Nick Rosetti and his overeager assistant Mikey Thomas hosting the interrogation, the whodunit unfolds in hilarious fashion.
Director Robert Kolby Harper has assembled a cast of performers who are skilled not only in the comic requirements of the partially ad-libbed script but also in the improvisation that comes with the unknown element of the audience joining in on the questioning. Harper also directs the cast to not over-do or force the jokes and has them working together with ease as a well-functioning ensemble.
Full of quick wit and wide eye expressions, Pasha Yamotahari is an absolute joy as the flamboyant Tony. While he steals the show with his flirty, funny, charming, but never too far over the top performance, the rest of the cast is just as effective. With a thick New Jersey accent, Elizabeth Brownlee brings the sexy gum-chewing Barbara to vibrant life. Patti Davis Suarez is a hoot as the upper crust, wealthy Mrs. Schubert; I especially love the added bit about her living on the east side of town and looking down on anyone who lives off an Avenue on the west side. Mathew Zimmerer gives Eddie the appropriate thuggish air of a man who uses the title "art dealer" as a way to force people out of their expensive antiques. Gene Ganssle has probably the hardest job, since he guides most of the play, interacts with the audience the most, and has to determine the direction the play goes once the votes for the murderer are cast, and he handles the duties with ease. As the ambitious rookie cop Mikey, Mark Jacobson is perfectly rambunctious and full of energy and determination with an added dose of klutziness.
Harper and the cast's ability to add local Phoenix and modern day references seamlessly into the play is a huge asset. Places like Ahwatukee, people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Brewer, and recent events including the ebola outbreak and gay marriage now being legal in Arizona only add to the fun and get big laughs.
Now, the play does turn on a dime from high comedy to high drama with little time for the audience to take a breath, and the action before the murder does drag in a few points, but those are very small quibbles for the hijinks and hilarity that follows once the house lights come up and the audience becomes part of the show.
The beautiful and colorful set design by Richard Farlow looks accurately like a working salon. From Barbara's very high heels and even higher hair to the undercover garb for Rosetti, the vibrant costumes by Gail Wolfenden-Steib and Terre Steed's hair and makeup design bring the colorful characters to stereotypical life.
With multiple possible endings and jokes that change every performance based on the current events of the day, a well-oiled cast gifted in ad lib and direction that effectively navigates the fine line between high comedy and heightened melodrama, Phoenix Theatre's production of Shear Madness is a hilarious interactive comedy whodunit gem.
A few words of advice: arrive early as there is a pre-show that runs about ten minutes before the production begins that adds some additional hijinks to the evening; be observant, as the many events that unfold before and during the murder will be reviewed later, so your attention to what the characters do is very important; and don't be afraid to become part of the playeven if you aren't a fan of shows that involve audience participation this production won't pull you up onto the stage or embarrass you too much.
Shear Madness runs through November 23rd, 2014, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director: Robert Kolby Harper
*Members of Actors' Equity Association