‘Desperate Measures’ at York Theatre Company. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Thirsty for a cowpoke musical featuring a shooting, a prisoner waiting to be hanged, a corrupt official, an upstanding law enforcement officer, a drunk, and a sexy saloon girl? Well, add a nun to the mix and I reckon you won’t need a revival of Destry Rides Again; everything else can be found in Desperate Measures, The York Theatre Company’s rip-snortin’ new six-shooter of a show, inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
The latest in a wave of musicals based on Will’s plays, this two-act, pistol-packing pleasure bears some resemblance to the recent Loveless, Texas, adapted from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Like that show (excellent score, weak book), it’s set out West, albeit circa the late 1800s, but it’s far quicker on the draw.
Among the reasons: Peter Kellogg’s amusingly lighthearted book, which puts the dialogue into engagingly rhyming couplets (like a Richard Wilbur translation of Molière) and trims the cast to only six; Kellogg’s liltingly likable lyrics; David Friedman’s spirited and infectiously melodic and rhythmic music; the perfectly cast ensemble; James Morgan’s unit set of wood-slatted walls with witty signage (“Bridle Chapel” for where weddings take place, for example); Paul Miller’s colorful lighting; Nicole Wee’s couldn’t-be-better period costumes; and, most especially, the sprightly direction and choreography of Bill Castellino, who helped make the York’s production of Cagney a must-see hit.
Desperate Measures is a far cry from Measure for Measure, of course, Shakespeare’s problem play having been transformed into a musical farce that takes the implausibilities of the original to comic extremes, including mining ironic laughter from the plot’s ethical dilemmas. There’s no need to be familiar with the original—seen last spring at Theatre for a New Audience and opening soon in an unconventional revival at the Public Theater—to follow the stripped-down simplified story.
“Somewhere out West” (in fact, the pre-state territory of Arizona), Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan), a handsome young rakehell, is awaiting execution for the killing of someone during a bar fight over the attentions of spitfire saloon girl Bella Rose (Lauren Molina). Sharing his jail cell is a drunken Irish priest, Father Morse (Gary Marachek), whose wobbly faith leads him to be preoccupied with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief in God.
The mustachioed and sideburned Sheriff Martin Green (Peter Saide), hoping to save Johnny from the noose (which hangs over the audience), convinces the prisoner’s beautiful, reluctant sister, Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), a novice nun, to help save his life. To do so, Susanna, about to take her vows as Sister Mary Jo, must convince the wicked Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtegruber (Nick Wyman)—a name the actors pronounce as easily as if it were Smith—to pardon Johnny. The governor, played like a lecherous, Prussian-accented Donald Trump (he even has a line, “Make Arizona great again”), will accede only if this singing nun will spend the night in bed with him.
When the nun will have none of this, Shakespeare’s use of the old bedroom switcheroo takes over; Bella, who loves Johnny and lacks the sister’s scruples, agrees to change places with her. This leads to lots of droll, Feydeau-like byplay in the darkened bedroom. Naturally, all comes to a rip-roaringly happy ending, with the two pairs of lovers (the prisoner and the tart, the sheriff and the novice) getting married, while the drunken priest, having solved his Nietzschean concerns, tries to muddle through the ceremony.
Castellino’s direction (which includes scenes played in the aisle) goes for energy and laughs, sometimes spoofing old-time melodrama, to squeeze each character for their most stereotypical traits: the Irish-accented, impish priest; the cynical, taciturn, heroic sheriff; the villainous politician; the wild young whippersnapper; the broadly comic whore; and the stick-in-the-mud novice (until she’s not). Things get silly enough to suggest you’re at a children’s-theatre-for-adults production. None of the talented singing and dancing thespians let you down; they manage to pull out all the stops and never lose their humanity.
Sixteen songs, some country and western, others not so much, are heard in Desperate Measures, each one worth listening to. Opening the show is a big company number, “The Ballad of Johnny Blood,” sounding like a mash-up of classic Western movie themes like “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darling,” “3:10 to Yuma,” or even “Blazing Saddles.”
Then come the solos, duets, and choral numbers, too many good ones to cite, but if a Smith and Wesson (Schmidt and Vesson to the Governor) were at my head I’d choose Bella’s anachronistic striptease, “It’s Getting Hot in Here”; “The Way You Feel Inside,” contrasting appearances with emotions; “In the Dark,” which closes the first act; “About Last Night,” the cross-purpose duet between Susanna and the Governor; and Johnny and Bella’s quarrel song, “Just for You,” with its funny physicality.
If you’re desperate for some easy-to-swallow musical theatre hard stuff I suggest galloping over to the York for a swig of Desperate Measures.
619 Lexington Avenue, NYC
Through October 15
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).