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The usual suspects in updated Shear Madness

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No, it wasn't that long ago that Shear Madness opened at Booth Playhouse, bringing a new kind of club theater experience to the Q.C. America's longest-running play ran true to form here, extending its run four times before making its graceful exit at the end of 2006. With little fanfare -- and only two cast changes -- the NC Blumenthal PAC has the audacity to bring the show back, this time to the Stage Door Theater.

We were happily surprised to find that the makeover extended far beyond the modest cast changes and the transposed venue. The PAC has not only brought in a new director, Bruce Jordan, to replace Madness legend Michael Fennimore, they've also performed a major update. OK, I'll admit that there may be an unprecedented degree of cheesiness in Paul Portner's script for it to accept fresh allusions within its nooks and crannies to Rush Limbaugh, disgraced Guv Blagojevich, Rihanna, Nancy Pelosi, plummeting Wachovia stock, Desperate Housewives, Sarah Palin, Hillary and Bill, Somali pirates, and Prez Obama's stimulus package without losing its basic shape.

For anyone who hasn't plumbed the murder of pianist Isabel Duke Czerny on the eve of her historic comeback, here are the usual suspects:

• Tony Whitcomb, the high-strung, flamboyantly swishy proprietor of the Shear Madness Hair Salon in Dilworth, more than little piqued by Czerny's clatter as she rehearses Rachmaninoff upstairs. Tom Wahl returns as chief cut-up.

• Barbara Jean Devereaux, the sexy salon hair-cutter, as distracting to customers as Tony is dangerous. She's been pretty chummy with Czerny during her final days, but does she have ulterior motives? Juliana Black debuts in the role.

• Eddie Lawrence, the mysterious customer who shows up with a briefcase and steals meaningful glances -- plus meaningfuller kisses -- from Barbara Jean. Could they be plotting together against Czerny? Martin Thompson reprises the suave slickster.

• Mrs. Eleanor Belk Shubert, affluent Myers Park matron. No apparent link with Czerny, but there are whiffs of scandal -- and marital infidelity -- in her actions. Linda Edwards reclaims her patrician status.

The audience watches the salon as the dastardly deed is done upstairs. Then they witness the interrogation by Charlotte PD detective Nick O'Brien (newcomer Jack Dillon), assisted by Mike Thomas (Joseph Klosek). With uncanny regularity, the killer turns out to be exactly whom the audience votes for.

Jordan has his cast playing slightly more broadly this time around, which makes a sizeable difference in smaller, more intimate surroundings. Otherwise, the machine still runs like clockwork, with fresh surprises likely from the audience input every night.

Twenty-nine years of performance history have not made the Shear Madness actors impervious to surprise, despite the lore passed along from one generation of performers to the next. When Sue and I attended on opening night, we found two members of the audience, one at a front table and another in the same row where we sat, who were unshakeable conspiracy theorists. They demanded that Nick and Mike prove that they were police investigators as claimed -- and above suspicion. Fellow cast members' assurances were to no avail with these Sherlocks.

Hard to be sure where such theorizing originates, but when Eddie asked for ID earlier in the evening, Nick responded by patting his gun holster. Maybe the smart aleck has learned to pack a badge along with the heat.

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