‘Desperate Measures’ An Exceptional, Hilarious Musical Tweak of ‘Measure for Measure’
Shakespeare’s comical plot of Measure for Measure radiates with riotous and melodic, exceptionalism in the glorious musical Desperate Measures. The musical currently at the York Theatre shines like no other rendition of Shakespeare’s work because of the adroit skill of the playwright Peter Kellogg who wrote the book and lyrics. Coupled with the musicality and memorable compositions by David Friedman, Desperate Measures is an incredible hit that is biding its time to make its mark on Broadway.
The comedy is non stop. The brilliant, clever story twists run rampant throughout. Indeed, the Western update of Shakespeare’s work is lifted to satiric high farce. Set to an illustrative musical songscape which is both appealing and profound, Desperate Measures delivers moment to moment fun and enthralls with good will and joy.
Thus far, I have taken my measure of this production twice. Each time I’ve appreciated the specific, brilliant direction by Bill Castellino. His acting ensemble’s choreographed movements during the musical numbers are reminiscent of the amazing work of the great Graciela Daniele. Additionally, the six-member cast portray the spin-off Shakespearean characters with invested realism and inventiveness that reves up the humor and makes it a stand-out. The cast’s unparalleled singing and cavorting through the setting of the 1890s Old West transforms many of the fantastical elements into searing present-day themes.
For that reason alone. this production must be seen. Uplift and encouragement suggest hope throughout each Act. Above all Desperate Measures brings us the wonderful reminder that laughter provides goodness like a wholesome medicine. And bitterness dries up the bones. So! You need a dose of healthful chortles? This show sheds them in abundance.
In ‘The Ballad of Johnny Blood” the ensemble and Johnny (an adorable, multi-talented, effusive and expertly winning Conor Ryan), introduce the conflict. Prisoner Johnny will hang for the love of a woman who unwittingly caused his downfall when he shot his rival in self-defense. However, Johnny has an advocate in the Sheriff (the equally adorable, smooth, brilliant, reserved, heroic Peter Saide), who guards him. The Sheriff creates an effective plan to soften the law and order governor of the territory (the hilarious, preening, fascist, sexual predator Nick Wyman). The softener, Sister Mary Jo (the exquisitely voiced and excellent Emma Degerstedt), will plead for her brother’s release.
To convince the Sister to visit the governor, the Sheriff sings “That’s Just How It Is.” The superb lyrics of this tuneful, beautifully rendered song by Saide carry one of the vital themes of the production. The unfair culture creates economic injustice. The rich prosper. The children of the poor suffer. Rarely can one upturn this dynamic. However, every now and then a time comes when goodness can prevail. If people take a stand and “speak up,” they can make a difference. The demure and innocent Sister Mary Jo, persuaded by the Sheriff’s challenge decides to ask for her brother’s pardon.
Of course the novitiate, has no idea of the nefariousness of the governor. We recognize his qualities immediately with Wyman’s Governor’s “Some Day They Will Thank Me.” In the song, the arrogant, presumptive, martinet reveals he is a blaggard. As the Sheriff prompts her to be more convincing with the Governor, Susanna sings “Look in Your Heart.” Unfortunately, Wyman’s Governor confirms our worst fears about those in power. Because Susanna persuades him with her lyrical loveliness, the Governor ties her up in a Gordian knot. He will release Johnny for one night of Susanna’s love.
In the beautifully wrought “Good To Be Alive,” (a high-point among many in the show), Johnny begs his sister. Trade her chastity for his life. The humorous debate that ensues leaves Johnny facing death. And Susanna’s refusal to give her chastity to the Governor over her brother’s pleas appears cold-hearted. Nevertheless, once again, the brilliant Sheriff comes up with an ingenious (and hysterical), plan to obtain the pardon.
However, will this ridiculous and incredible plan work? To encourage themselves, Johnny the Sheriff and Susanna (Sister Mary Jo’s real name) are joined by the alcoholic, atheistic priest (the hysterical Gary Marachek), to sing the uplifting “It Doesn’t Hurt to Try.” Indeed, since the risk of life and death is great, any plan that can stave off the hangman’s noose for Johnny is a boon. Thus, off Susanna and the Sheriff go to set the plan in motion eliciting the help of Johnny’s love Bella (the wonderful Lauren Molina), whose occupation as a saloon singer gives her special talents to work a miracle for Johnny’s life.
Following the basic plot of Measure for Measure, yet giving it a modern Old Western twist, Desperate Measures follows with the parallels yet adds its own flavor through the lyrics and tuneful songs. For example, in order to train Bella for her upcoming role where she switches places with Sister Mary Jo, the Sheriff assists Sister Mary Jo in teaching Bella how to present herself in “The Way You Feel on the Inside.” Additionally, as the situation to save her brother’s life has thrown the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo together, we recognize a budding romance between them which neither wants to acknowledge. The Sheriff especially, a proud man, doesn’t even want to contemplate that he is attracted to Sister Mary Jo, who will be taking her vows to be a nun in the next few days. The memorable “Stop There” recalls the fear of unrequited love and identifies the reality of the pain of falling in love and allowing one’s imagination to run away before the love interest accepts being loved.
To conclude Act I the ensemble joins in the thrumming song “In the Dark.” As each individual identifies that the darkness is the place where anything can happen, they encourage themselves to hope for their desires. For Johnny it is his release. For the Governor it is a fulfillment of his passion for Sister Mary Jo. For Bella who is duping the Governor, she hopes for the ability to pull off the deception that she is Sister Mary Jo. For the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo (Susanna) they secretly yearn for the hope that they might be able to love one another. The musical number beautifully caps the conflicts and themes of Act I and establishes the set up for the resolution of the conflicts in the second act.
The Governor’s fabulous seduction scene, the ensuing hi-jinks and the heroic actions of Johnny’s love, Bella, transport us to comedic heights. How the conflicts thread their way to the conclusion, bring the characters together and apart again. And they resolve in a hysterical climactic scene which brings down the house. The music of the second act is as heady as is the first. And once more, the various songs resonate as does the clever rhyming dialogue.
Memorable and engaging, this is a production where the smarmy villain receives his comeuppance. And where an alcoholic, atheist priest manages to redeem himself. There is love, unique heroism, surprising justice, and redemption for even the wicked. Perhaps! As for the specifics, this review holds no spoiler alerts. You will just have to see this most superb musical production to discover the incredibly clever rhymes and production’s tremendous vibrance for yourself.
Can there be a better rollicking, musical update of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure? I think not!
I cannot say enough about the music (folks have asked when the CDs will go on sale), and the lyrics and book by this prodigiously adroit team of Kellogg and Friedman. The functional and minimalistic Western sets trope the humor, time and place, as do the costumes. Their simplicity carries the farce and comedy, yet makes room for the dark, ironic undertones in the themes. Thankfully, the characters in this production suit the measure with which they have bestowed grace and beauty. However, such does not occur in life, as Kellogg reminds us and Shakespeare reminds us in Measure for Measure.
Nevertheless, the show’s currency resonates timelessness. Heroes may thwart villains. Innocence may triumph over corruption. Love may save. Justice might win out despite overwhelming odds. Does absolute power corrupt in Desperate Measures? Indeed, as it corrupts in Measure for Measure. Both works reflect the vicissitudes that confront individuals whether in the Old West 1890 or in our current world. However, when good men rise up to stand against lust, avarice and overweening privilege, the light of truth can disperse the darkness. That it does so tunefully, memorably, riotously in Desperate Measures is very welcome for us at this time.
Kudos to the musicians David Hancock Turner, Justin Rothberg, Joseph Wallace, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman. And accolades to the design team James Morgan, Nicole Wee, Paul Miller Julian Evans for their creative exploits on Desperate Measures. A word to the wise. The production most probably will be moving to a more expensive venue. This New York premiere has already enjoyed two extensions. See it now, so you will be able to see it again. You will be thrilled you did.
Desperate Measures runs with one intermission. It will be at The York Theatre (619 Lexington Avenue) until 26th November.