Our audience hadn't even realized the play had started.
The continually in-motion and always entertaining Bootleggers had barely concluded their pre-show when the evening's featured performance quietly began. As patrons sipped their after-dinner coffees, and with the house lights fully lit, the first characters in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's production of Shear Madness made their way onstage and – delivering an outlandish and amusing show-before-the-show – gave our crowd some insight into what sort of over-the-top, wacky comedy we were about to see. Between cast members getting their hair washed and blow-dried in rhythm to classic pop music to the infinite number of entrances and exits, it was clear that this was going to be one wild and colorful ride.
Shear Madness, written by Paul Pörtner and adapted by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, is a classic comedy/murder mystery set in a hair salon with the same name as the show's title. The unseen victim of this whodunit is a concert-pianist recluse who owns, and lives on, the second floor of the building in which Shear Madness operates. The plot is set entirely in the cupcake-colored hairstyling studio (designed by Susan Holgersson) where the audience is introduced to all the potential suspects: the salon's flamingly exuberant owner Tony Whitcomb (Tom Walljasper); Tony's employee and fellow cosmetologist Barbara Demarco (Jennifer Poarch); antiques dealer and straight man Eddie Lawrence (Brad Hauskins); and hoity-toity socialite Mrs. Schubert (Carrie SaLoutos). The two remaining cast members are the police detectives (Jeff Haffner's Nick and Tristan Layne Tapscott's Mikey) who happen to be staking out the salon and are saddled with identifying the killer.
The ingenious ingredients of Shear Madness are its hyper-localization and contemporary references freshly injected into the script for each individual performance. The story is always set on the day the audience sees it and in the city where the performance is taking place, and Circa '21's cast works hard to infuse the dialogue with local and of-the-minute mentions. At Saturday's performance, the audience was treated to everything from jokes about Donald Trump rallies to references to Whitey's Ice Cream and Necker's Jewelers. Additionally, several Quad Cities communities are hilariously roasted numerous times, and whether you are from Iowa or Illinois, the cast does not discriminate in its targeting.
Another component that has made Shear Madness an audience favorite around the globe is its ability to completely remove the fourth wall, allowing the audience to participate in the story. More than halfway through the first act, the house lights are brought up (to the cast's “surprise”) and the audience is solicited to share with the detectives any potential clues they witnessed from the beginning of the plotline. Before the show concludes, the audience votes on whom they believe to be the murderer, which forces the cast, based on the results, to perform one of four potential finales. Pay close attention early on, because there are numerous clues that you can share with the detectives to help solve the crime.
Just like Peyton Manning calling an audible in the Super Bowl, Haffner shines as the show's de facto quarterback, his lead detective facilitating on-target, funny, and oddball questions and comments from the audience. Deadpanning some the evening's most clever repartee with patrons, he kept the crowd from getting out-of-control while also keeping the story moving.
Walljasper's clichéd incarnation of the gay hair stylist generated many of the performance's biggest laughs, and his limp-wristed sashaying was the most fun when channeling Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! or, with an insider’s wink, referencing his own local-theatre credits. Poarch's portrayal was also somewhat formulaic with her gum-chomping, wisecracking beautician Barbara, yet there were several moments in which her interpretation was sweet and adorable, making her, ironically, a prime suspect.
Tapscott's nerdy take on Mikey was roll-your-eyes funny, reminding me of the old Airplane! movies as his character, at times, took direction a bit too literally. SaLoutos' Mrs. Shubert was so on-target that I'm pretty sure I've seen her dining on seafood fumet at Davenport’s Bix Bistro. Finally, Hauskins' Eddie was the perfect foil for much of the farce that took place on stage, and his straitlaced portrayal made me very suspicious of his character's intentions.
Director Sean McCall has put together a sharp cast that shares solid timing, and his show will no doubt be a new favorite among many Circa '21 audiences. Shear Madness is uproarious, farcical, and fabulous, and you should call for an appointment today; rumor has it people will be dying for a wash, style, and set from this screwball salon.
Shear Madness runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through April 30, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.