(l to r) Peter Saide, Sarah Parnicky, Connor Ryan, Lauren Molina, Nick Wyman and Gary Marache in ‘Desperate Measures.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Bobby McGuire
Yeehaw! After a successful run last fall at the York Theatre Company, Desperate Measures, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Award-winning musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, has galloped into a commercial run at New World Stages in all of its rootin’ and tootin’ politically incorrect glory. With deft direction and a snappy book and score delivered by a comically-gifted cast, this evening is the perfect compliment to these #metoo times.
Let’s make this clear. Desperate Measures is a loose (very loose) adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy. Roles have been compressed. Plot lines have been jettisoned. And the action has been moved from 17th century Vienna to the American Old West. What does remain from the Bard’s work are its themes of law, morality and sexual harassment—all timely stuff 400 hundred years later.
The story revolves around Sister Mary Jo (aka Susanna), a novitiate about to take her final vows at the convent of Our Lady of the Tumbleweeds. Mary Jo’s brother, Johnny Blood, a dimwitted cowboy, is on death row for killing a man in self-defense. Mary Jo receives clemency from Governor von Richterhenkenflichtgetruber for her brother, but it comes with a catch. In order to save his life, she must sacrifice her chastity to the Teutonic totalitarian. Help comes in the way of Sheriff Martin Green, who enlists Bella Rose, a saloon girl and part-time prostitute (who just so happens to be Johnny’s girlfriend), and Father Morse, an alcoholic nihilistic priest.
Sound like a lot? That’s only Act One.
All of this is brought to the stage in a delightful adaptation by lyric and book writer Peter Kellogg, who penned the show completely in questionable verse. It’s a joke that surprisingly never wears out its welcome even when rhyming “Nietzche” with “peachy.” The reset period is sung in a collection of country-inspired songs by composer David Friedman that runs the gamut from honky tonk ballads to rollicking up-tempo tunes. The second act challenge duet “Just For You,” in which Bella and Johnny try to up each other with lists of vices they performed in the name of love, is particularly hilarious.
The cast of six hits all the right notes. As love interests Mary Jo and the Sheriff, Sarah Parnicky and Peter Saide have near-perfect musical comedy chemistry. As the Governor, Nick Wyman pulls out all the Werner Klemperer stops in a comic tour de force. And Gary Marachek channels a slightly deranged Barry Fitzgerald as the boozed-up priest having a crisis of faith.
Highest comic marks go Connor Ryan and Lauren Molina as secondary love interests Johnny and Bella. Impossibly sexy, Ryan is a scream as the death row dumb-dumb. And with Lucille Ball-worthy mugging and double takes broader than the side of a barn, Molina shamelessly steals every moment she’s on stage.
Although on the surface, the evening is played for laughs, director/choreographer Bill Castellino subversively works in some of the Bard’s deeper themes of heartless unyielding law enforcement and sexual harassment—both alive and well four centuries later in Trump’s America. All of this is proof of the timeless brilliance of Shakespeare’s satire—even when accompanied by banjos.
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street , NYC
Bobby McGuire is the backstage veteran of nine Broadway shows and national tours. His post-showbiz life led him to work for Ogilvy and Mather, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Edge Media Network. He resides in Manhattan with two roommates and a Maltese named Nero.