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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 1, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 22
The shear madness of Michael Baldwin
Hair-raising 'whodunit' comes to Seattle
Arts & Entertainment
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The shear madness of Michael Baldwin
Hair-raising 'whodunit' comes to Seattle

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

SHEAR MADNESS
MOORE THEATRE
Through June 24


Michael Kevin Baldwin has a vast resume of theater experience. He's acted Shakespeare and in The Diary of Anne Frank as well as the musicals Camelot and A Chorus Line. Currently, he is portraying Gay hairstylist Tony Whitcomb in the hit audience-participation whodunit comedy Shear Madness. As the play's first national touring company makes its way to the Emerald City, SGN caught up with one of the leads of this new show.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Michael Baldwin: My aunt was obsessed with performing. She loved to sing and dance and entertain and was a big influence from childhood on. She was a real Auntie Mame type of character. My whole family dynamic set me up for being the clown - I'm the only boy out of five children. As I got older, everything I know about comedy I learned from Carol Burnett in Annie and Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.

Andrews-Katz: What was the first show you ever performed in?

Baldwin: The very first was the Christmas pageant for my church. I played the donkey that carried the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem. I was five years old and still have very clear memories of my costume and my four-line solo. My first professional gig was when I was 11 and I was in a play called The Woman Who Laughed. It was a dark, satirical play about child abuse in a small town and wrongful accusations. That was at the Regional Theater in Connecticut, and that's when I got bitten by the theater bug, and thought that it was potentially something I could do for the rest of my life.

Andrews-Katz: How did you get involved with Shear Madness?

Baldwin: I went to an open audition call back in 2007, in New York City for a production in Lake George, New York. I didn't know much about Lake George or about the show, but I remember seeing it at the Kennedy Center on my eighth-grade field trip to Washington, D.C. I remember loving it and howling with laughter, and wondering how they could do such improvisation with what they did and how they captured the magic of it all. I went into the call and had a wonderful audition, and a few callbacks later & Now Bruce Jordan [the show's director and originator of the Tony Whitcomb role] has become a mentor to me. He owns the rights to the show with his business partner and is literally the 'man behind the curtain.'

Andrews-Katz: Without revealing secrets, can you explain what Shear Madness is all about?

Baldwin: It's a situational comedy in which six stock characters wind up together in a hair salon. They are very different people so there's someone everyone in the audience can identify with. Then a murder happens upstairs, and everyone is a suspect. Things spiral out of control and we really have the potential for a different show every night. That's what keeps this so thrilling.

Andrews-Katz: Since the show is audience-participation, how does it work with larger theater venues?

Baldwin: That's a good question, and that's something we are going to be figuring out this week. My friend/colleague Patrick Noonan [as Detective Nick O'Brien] is the one who mainly interacts with the audience, and he has done it in D.C. He's a consonant professional, so we are lucky to have him steer us through it. We know we are playing to the balcony, so we've had to learn how to react so that a larger audience can follow the storyline, and when they do get involved, they can focus themselves on what we want them to see.

Andrews-Katz: What's the oddest response you've ever gotten from an audience member?

Baldwin: The play is all about perception. Originally it wasn't a comedy, but a piece on how people perceive things surrounding a murder. When the audience gets involved they will recount things that they've seen, and some of them are absolutely wrong. One time this jock-type tough guy stood up and asked the sexy female hairdresser, 'Hey, do you have a friend and we can double-date?' Immediately, I walked over and said, 'Of course she does - me!' He turned beet red and was a good sport about it.

Andrews-Katz: The show boasts that it incorporates the latest breaking news into each performance. Is there a team member who travels ahead and does local research?

Baldwin: This is the first time we are doing the tour, so we are kind of the guinea pigs here. We did send ahead a sort of standard question sheet with Seattle references and insider information. When we were rehearsing in New York, the six of us in the cast came in every day with the Seattle Times, Wikipedia articles, Google Maps, anything, sort of an all-hands-on-deck. We are all sniffing around trying to make it as local and in the now as possible.

Andrews-Katz: Which do you prefer, improvisation theater or more traditional musicals?

Baldwin: I love both of them. Actually I do more of what's called 'straight plays' [non-musicals] and improv theater separate from most traditional theater. That's why I like Shear Madness - in my opinion it's a genius thing to combine both. It is a scripted play with three-dimensional characters, and has this moment to open itself up to improv, while not losing its structure along the way. It's supported by drama and comedy.

Andrews-Katz: Since previous performances have shown that you are not afraid of doing drag, what female roles of the theater would you like to play?

Baldwin: That's an excellent question. In the spirit of Carol Burnett I'd like to play Miss Hannigan from Annie. On the complete other side of the coin, I'd like to play Lady Macbeth.

Shear Madness opened at the Charles Playhouse in Boston in January 1980. A second production began in 1987 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Both are still running, along with engagements in South Korea and in Greece.

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