Shear Madness at the New Theatre – 4.5 Stars

Artistic Directors Richard Carrothers and Dennis D. Hennessey, Producer Joe R. Fox III, present Richard Karn starring in Shear Madness, written by Paul Portner. Also starring Cathy Barnett, Craig Benton, Dodie Brown, Jim Korinke, Ron Megee, Tudi Roche. Lighting Design by Randy B. Winder, Scenic Design by Keith Brumley, Costume Design by Mary Traylor. Runs through January 18, 2015. See

When a murder happens above a barber shop, and the police bust in, the Shear Madness of this play will make you laugh over and over. The murder mystery is played for comedy, and takes place at the best venue for dinner theatre that I’ve ever visited, the New Theatre.

Arrive early and help yourself to the buffet. Unlike other dinner theatres that skimp on the food, you’ll find rolls, salad, vegetables, chicken, tilapia, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, and everything else you could want. The place seats 1,000 in a tiered structure that gives everyone a great view of the stage. The 20 chefs and 32 servers give you efficient and friendly service. They even bring out free bread and put a carafe of water on your table, so you don’t need to wait for refills. Dessert and drinks are not included with the ticket price.

The structure of Shear Madness is unique. Part way through the show, the actors break the “fourth wall” and engage the audience directly, in character. You can raise your hand and interrogate the murder suspects. Through an artistic trick the entire audience is brought into the action and can collectively try to solve the mystery. Then, towards the end, the audience gets to vote on whodunnit. Whomever they choose is played out as the murderer. This is a clever trick that gives the audience what they want, and makes it impossible to spoil the ending for friends, because the show’s ending is always unknown. On the other hand, if anyone could be the murderer, it’s sort of pointless looking for clues and trying to solve it.

That hardly matters, because the action was played for comedy. Even the preshow, while we were eating dinner, caused us to laugh out loud. Surprisingly Richard Karn, the show’s celebrity made famous by TV shows Home Improvement and Family Feud, did not take the center of the production. His character was reserved, which made him suspicious, but also hardly allowed him to play to his comedic strengths. He might have played the investigator, I would have thought. Perhaps his touring schedule limited his rehearsal time, requiring him to have a lesser role. This was good fortune for Ron Megee, allowing him to steal the stage as an over-the-top gay hair stylist, Tony Whitcomb. Megee showed perfect comedic timing as he threw around shaving cream and sprayed water “accidentally” all over the rest of the cast. He gave the show a wonderful momentum, and it hadn’t even started yet!

The second strength in the cast was Jim Kornike, who first acted as a straight man. Being a straight man (or woman) is an underappreciated challenge, something harder than being a comic. They must react in a way that seems plausible, conveying annoyance without real pain, with hardly any dialogue, and matching the beats of the comedy. In the old vaudeville days, they would even get paid more than comics, and I wonder if that is still true. Then when the play opened up for audience participation, Kornike acted as the moderator, speaking with the audience and proposing their questions to the murder suspects. No reason was given nor was one needed to explain why a thousand people could suddenly see into the hair salon. With Shear Madness, you just go with it. The crowd work and improvisational comedy were instant. The cast needed no pause before zinging back to whatever the audience had said, and it was far funnier than the scripted comedy. I’m curious which questions are common and which the most surprising.

The cast’s diction was excellent, so we did not get lost, and having only four suspects, the story was simple enough to comprehend in its entirety. The staging was flawless, in candy colors, and totally convincing, even having a working sink. The costuming was a natural extension of the characters themselves, and helped us avoid confusing them with each other. That being said, the script sometimes used first names and sometimes last names. Being consistent would make the play even easier to follow.

There’s no doubt that the New Theatre puts on a 5-star production, or more. Unfortunately, the play itself is a 4-star script. After its creation in Germany in the 1960s, Shear Madness opened in Boston in 1980, and I saw it there in the 1990s. Today, it feels dated. True, the New Theatre updated it with local references that caused uproarious laughter and applause, and with references to Twitter and other modern conveniences. So when I say dated, I mean in its structure. The play is a series of quick put-downs and jokes that don’t relate to the plot, making it quite like a TV sitcom of the 1990s. There were far too many throwaway pop culture references. Today audiences are more sophisticated.

Here’s an example. One actor says, “What’s this music?”, and another says “Rachmaninoff”, to which the reply is “Bless you!” The idea is that ‘Rachmaninoff’ sounds a bit like sneezing if you say it in a funny way. But the actor didn’t say it in a funny way and the aside had no relation to the rest of the dialogue, and I don’t know. I’m not offended by vulgar comedy. I just don’t think it’s clever or reasonable to pretend that someone could possibly mistake Rachmaninoff for a sneeze, and it’s hard to believe that these were the choicest laugh lines honed over decades of adaptations of Shear Madness. Much of the quips sank to this lazy level of writing, leaving me bored.

The play has a structural fault that cannot be ignored: the gay character is a stereotype that in today’s society is no longer permissible. I don’t mind if there are wacky personalities. Heck, a comedy is all about idiots and the clash of strange behaviors. However, the gay hair stylist is eccentric in just the way we would have seen with African-American, Native Americans, and Hispanics in the old Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940s. There’s a reason why racial jokes make a minority stupid, inept, and harmless… It plays into a white mainstream fantasy of being better than them, of not needing to fear them. In the same way, I can’t help but feel that the gay character’s being constantly off-balance, incompetent, waving of hands with a nasal whine, and especially the relentless — I counted more than 30 — sexual advances to everyone, were just too much.

Is the play homophobic? Probably. But Shear Madness without a crazy gay guy just isn’t Shear Madness. Should the New Theatre be responsible for that? Partially, yes. The director could have chosen a different play. Or having chosen this play, I can understand that the director would not want to shave off the flaming gay behavior that is the show’s primary gag… but he did make other changes to the script. The jokes were amended to modernize them and add local references. So the script might have been changed further, to add a line where Tony acknowledges that most gay men aren’t flaming. Or Tony might have been given some humanizing moments showing strength as well as weakness.

It’s telling that Tony makes a put-down reference to the Barn Theatre. (To be more precise, he acts out a stereotype of what “Barn actors” are like.) The Barn Theatre is a real theatre company in Kansas City that is currently producing La Cage Aux Folles, which I also have reviewed. With depth and grace, the Barn Theatre shows the nuances of what being gay is really like, without being shallow or melodramatic. The local production of La Cage Aux Folles shows that Kansas City can put on a drama that could change your life, while the more commercially successful New Theatre entertains but does not reach higher. It should.

That being said, I do not have the heart to give the show 4 stars. I cannot ignore the production quality, the spot on acting and improv, the innovative format of the play, and the ambiance of the dinner. Also I can tell you that I may have been the only person in the place who wasn’t thrilled, so it would be wrong of me to force a lower rating on a play that those around me enjoyed so much. The audience laughed heartily at the one-liners that made me shrug, and loved the gay antics. It’s only pesky liberals like me from Boston that raise a question, I think. So for better or worse, the New Theatre knows its audience and the show undeniably pleased its guests. For these reasons I’m glad to give the show 4.5 stars.