Arts » Performing Arts

The Guinness Book And Glory

Cutting-edge comedy hits Charlotte

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If ever the Blumenthal picked a bankable property to bring to Charlotte, Shear Madness is it. Since opening in a wee Boston theater in 1980, Paul Portner's interactive comedy whodunit has persevered into the new millennium, becoming the first, second and third longest running non-musical in American theater history, with record runs in Chicago, DC, as well as Beantown.

The Charlotte production, which launches into previews this week, is being midwifed by Michael Fennimore, who has performed the show nearly 6,500 times in his own implacable trek toward The Guinness Book of World Records. You'll like the show better here because it's being customized for Charlotte. That Jake Delhomme football jersey you espy in the PR photo is definitely not from the Boston edition. Instead of struggling with obscure references to current Bostonian events, Metrolina patrons at Booth Playhouse through May 27 will get the topical tidbits better than anybody.

They'll also get a prime sampling of local talent, who helped heap the Charlotte flavorings into the dish. Five of the six members of the Shear Madness ensemble currently call Charlotte home. Two are among the hottest new talents to hit the Queen City in years.

Zillah Glory insinuated herself into town during the Thinking In Pictures reading-stage festival at Spirit Square last November, making a smashing debut in Jeff Stacy's new screenplay, Gospel Hill. I had a second chance to rave over her energy and spontaneity in On the Verge last month at Carolina Actor's Studio Theatre.

Glory's collaboration with the Guinness Book aspirant figures to win wider appreciation at a Booth Playhouse reconfigured expressly for the Shear Madness invasion. Cocktail tables and drink rails will not only give the Booth a chic new cabaret ambiance, it will also facilitate interaction between the ensemble and the audience -- the lifeblood of the Madness experience.

And what has Joseph Klosek done to warrant mention in the same breath as the Guinness and Charlotte's newfound Glory? During 2005, Klosek merely figured in the two best homegrown musicals to premiere here, Johnny Guitar and tick, tick ... BOOM! Klosek's exploits won him our Best Supporting Musical Actor award.

"My role is Mikey Thomas," says Klosek. "I play the young, go-getter detective, the protègè to Nick Rossetti, who is played by Christian Casper. Michael Fennimore is a dynamite director. He's really been able to give us some great insights and tips on how to handle a lot of different situations."

We come in to the Shear Madness Hair Salon, located somewhere in Charlotte, where Mikey's haircut appointment turns into a business call. To work right, Fennimore says that the murder investigation needs to look like it's all improv even though it's not. So the rehearsal process is largely a journey into learning your role, trusting your instincts and trusting the other members of the ensemble.

"He tries to cover every scenario that can possibly come up for us," Klosek explains. "He sees 10 steps ahead. Like we will start something and go somewhere -- he already knows where we're going. And he will throw monkey wrenches at us and really try to give us things that we're just not prepared for. That's been one of the greatest parts about rehearsal, because you do play it by the seat of your pants."

Fennimore didn't come to the show until 1986. But after the Charlotte edition is up and running, he'll be settling back into the Boston cast on April 11. He has not only mentored the Charlotte cast, he has also been instrumental in the Booth makeover.

"They basically said, 'OK, here's the space, here's the supporting staff to give you whatever you want, go for it.'" Fennimore relates. "They gave me complete full rein on this."

Back in Boston, Fennimore is used to performing in a postage-stamp-sized stage in front of 199 people. Here at the Booth, they're hoping to pack in 400 customers for each show. Fennimore is sending photos back up to Boston just to make his colleagues jealous.

No matter how exhaustively they prepare, it's a thrill ride for cast members when they mix with the audience -- the seventh character in the show -- for the first time. Not for the faint of heart, that's for sure.

Even before previews this week, it was necessary for Fennimore to give his Charlotte cast the true seat-of-the-pants experience with a live audience. Glory was still decompressing from that first encounter when I caught up with her late Sunday night at RiRa.

"Tonight was our first invited dress, and it was incredible!" she gushed via cell phone. "It was electric! I felt like I was freezing. I literally didn't know what was going to be said next. Yet I knew my character, everybody knew theirs so well that it felt thrilling. It felt like the first time you've been on stage."

Glory is the lusty Barbara De Marco, an ace hairdresser at Shear Madness with plenty of mileage on her odometer, apparently still hot for new escapades.

"They say she grew up in Gastonia," Glory tells me with a hint of a drawl. "She's a scrapper. Loves Tony, would do anything for Tony but is actually the better hairdresser. So later on, that could be a point of contention between them."

Glory declares Fennimore to be the best director she's worked with in the past five years, a comedy revelation. And she's absolutely ga-ga over Tom Wahl, the one out-of-towner in the cast.

"I now understand, after a night of performance," Glory confided giddily, "why so many people say, 'If you do not have a Tony, you do not have a show.' It's on his shoulders, and he is saucy, naughty, magnificently fun."

As maestro Christof Perick so perceptively declared last Friday, there would likely be no enduring symphonic repertoire if it weren't for the towering genius of Mozart -- and likely no symphonic orchestras. So a celebration was surely in order as Wolfgang reached his 250th birthday, no matter how long-in-the-tooth his most familiar works are -- or how decomposed the composer.

From a programmatic standpoint, however, the menu served up for the Mozart Celebration by Charlotte Symphony Orchestra seemed as uninspired as the few audience members who stayed afterwards to hear Perick discuss the newly announced slate for the 2006-07 season. We were treated to an opera overture and a piano concerto before intermission. Then we were sent away with the late symphony whose opening is the theme music I've chosen for my cell phone.

Anybody looking for fresh Mozart discoveries wasn't going to find them at Belk Theater. My feeling was that guest soloist Jon Nakamatsu, who usually trades in Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Brahms, may have been the only person onstage who had bothered to learn some new music.

Of course, knowing music well isn't a crime, and no major gaffes bounced toward subscribers as a prelude to CSO's renewal campaign. Perick trims his forces nicely when he plays Mozart, they attack sharply, and the tempi are brisk. A warm sonority caressed the overture to The Magic Flute -- and the G Minor Symphony #40 had more richness and dynamic dialectic than any cell phone could boast.

But as good as the band was, I don't think they were inspired by this belated birthday party, either.


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