Size is the measure of strength in some places.
In Boston, it's duration that matters. The Hub boasts a slew ofaugust institutions - Boston Athenaeum, the Handel & Haydn Society,Boston Latin School, to name three - that are ancient by Americanstandards. The Red Sox suffer their decades-old curse, one of themost enduring in American sports annals. The Irish and Yankees remainlocked in the country's oldest ethnic feud.
So the seemingly quirky fact that the Boston production of 'ShearMadness' is the longest-running play in American theater history fitswithin a local context.
But the hairdressing whodunit, which celebrates its 20thanniversary at its 8,385th performance at the Charles Playhouse thisweekend, is an international phenomenon as well. Spinoff productionsof 'Shear Madness' have been onstage at the Kennedy Center inWashington, D.C., for 12 years, and at San Francisco's Mason StreetTheatre for three. The show ran for 18 years in Chicago. It iscurrently playing in Bologna, Milan, Naples, and Rome, Italy; Calgaryand Drayton, Canada; Wellington, New Zealand; San Juan, Puerto Rico;and has been staged in Budapest, Mexico City, and Tel Aviv.
Like a number of success stories, this one never could have beenpredicted. 'Shear Madness' producers Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan,former schoolteachers and actors, bought the rights to the play, asix-character, one-set adaptation of a Swiss murder mystery, for$50,000 in the late 1970s. With an initial outlay of $60,000, theyopened what they thought would be a six-week run in 1980.
Initial reviews were mixed, as the euphemism goes. But word ofmouth is apparently what counted. The show has earned $102 millionworldwide - so far.
'The Mousetrap' has been onstage in London's West End for 48years. The musical 'The Fantasticks' has been running off-Broadway inNew York since the end of the Eisenhower era (to the bemusement ofmany, including the cartoonist Roz Chast, who lampooned it in theJan. 24 issue of The New Yorker).
In 1987, 'Shear Madness' in Boston broke the record for thelongest-running nonmusical American play - held up to that point by'Life With Father.' The Chicago production knocked 'Father' out ofsecond place in the ranking in June 1990. As of October 1995, theWashington, D.C., 'Shear Madness' has been third.
The locally grown improvisational comedy-mystery has made it intothe 'Guinness Book of Records.'
Performed cabaret style in the Charles's 196-seat Stage IItheater, the Boston production regularly plays to capacity houses.
The play is set in a unisex hair salon, whose denizens discoverthat a murder has taken place upstairs. In the second act,theatergoers help solve the crime. The secret of 'Shear Madness'seems to be keeping things small, local, and new. The show's outcomeis different each night. But its backdrop is local - Barbara DeMarco,the manicurist, has a wicked Boston accent, for example - and thedialogue is rife with references to what's news.
'Shear Madness' in Boston has employed the talents of many localactors, among them Will LeBow, Karen MacDonald, Richard McElvain,Paula Plum, and Sandra Shipley.
It will celebrate its longevity twice this weekend, with ananniversary performance tomorrow and a gala performance Mondayevening at the Charles Playhouse. Limited tickets are available.
The annual Boston Women on Top Theater Festival opens at theBoston Center for the Arts on Feb. 24, and runs through March 19.
Meanwhile, three plays about episodes in the lives of intriguingwomen will be onstage at the BCA in February.
SpeakEasy Stage Company opened the New England premiere engagementof 'Violet' at the BCA Theater last night. The only off-Broadwayproduction ever to win the Drama Desk Award for best musical, theplay is set in the South in 1964, and tells the story of a youngwoman's Wizard-of-Oz-like quest to find a televangelist she hopeswill heal her face, which was badly scarred in a childhood accident.Directed by SpeakEasy's artistic director Paul Daigneault, 'Violet'stars Bridget Beirne.
The Coyote Theatre opens August Strindberg's 'Miss Julie' at theBoston Center for the Arts Black Box Theatre tonight. The story of anaristocratic young woman who engages in a heated sexual tryst withher father's servant, the production kicks off a series the companyis calling 'Coyote Classics,' which will bring a contemporary slantto the theatrical canon.
On Feb. 25, the Sugan Theatre Company opens the American premiereof 'Perfect Days' at the BCA Theatre. A new romantic comedy by LizLochhead, it's about an uninhibited Scottish celebrity hairdresserwho yearns for a baby as she stares down the barrel of her 40thbirthday. The play won a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festivalin 1998 and was just nominated for an Olivier Award (London'sequivalent of the Tonys) in the best new play category.