By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
According to the program’s title page, Desperate Measures, the hysterical new musical delighting audiences at The York Theatre, is “Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.” But don’t worry—even if your most recent acquaintance with the Bard dates back to senior year, there’s no need to “Brush up your Shakespeare” before show time. Absolutely no previous Shakespearean scholarship is required to follow the show’s whacky plot—or to have a rollicking good time.
Here’s what remains of Shakespeare’s original opus: a nun (a suitably blonde and demure Emma Degerstedt as Sister Mary Jo/Susanna) makes a bargain with the corrupt, power-hungry Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman, portraying a brilliant combination of Snidely Whiplash and Colonel Klink): she will sacrifice her chastity to him in order to save her brother, Johnny Blood. Johnny (the relentlessly handsome Conor Ryan) has been condemned to hang for murdering a man in self defense. (A noose hangs ominously from the rafters throughout the proceedings, to remind the audience of what’s at stake). As in Shakespeare’s play, a plan is put into place to safeguard Susanna’s purity by secretly arranging for a non-virgin—saloon girl (and Johnny’s love interest) Bella Rose— to perform the dirty deed in her place. Bella is irresistibly played by Lauren Molina (half of the comedy-pop duo The Skivvies), adorably mugging and in fine voice, with the perfect mix of naughty-but-nice, good/bad girl. Desperate Measures’ creative team has further extended their poetic license: they’ve relocated the action from Vienna to the American Old West, a move that permits award-winning Broadway/pop composer David Friedman to provide lots of crowd-pleasing, honky tonky, country western melodies that create an evening of knee-slapping fun.
In addition to Johnny, Sister Mary Jo/Susanna, and Governor what’s-his-name, two additional characters round out the proceedings: tall, handsome, smarter-than-he-lets-on Sheriff Martin Green (Peter Saide, winning and debonair), and the alcoholic, nihilistic, Nietzsche-quoting priest, Father Morse (Gary Marachek, in a comic tour de force).
Each member of the excellent six-person cast has ample opportunity to shine in solo, duet, and ensemble numbers, ably selling Peter Kellogg’s consistently witty lyrics. (Mr. Kellogg, a two-time Tony nominee, also wrote the book, which, in another nod to the Bard, consists entirely of consistently witty rhyming couplets). Musical highlights include Nick Wyman’s broad, boastful “Someday They Will Thank Me” (“They will name their children Otto after me—even the girls”) and the Act I ensemble closing number “In the Dark,” where the characters separate into three groups of two (Susanna/Sheriff Green; Johnny/Priest; Governor/Bella), with each couple infusing the lyrics with a different meaning. It’s a rousing conclusion that presages the action in Act II.
Molina and Ryan are especially memorable in their second act duet “Just for You,” a hilarious song where each tries to one-up the other in what he or she has sacrificed for their love. The actors’ comic timing, along with Kellogg’s clever lyrics, are a highlight of the evening. Emma Degerstedt’s star turn comes in “What Is this Feeling?” a tender love ballad (she is falling for the kind, smart, and handsome Sheriff) in which the stunned novitiate finds it impossible to speak the word “love.” Susanna wonders, “Could it be that word?”
Although Bill Castellino (Cagney) directs and choreographs Desperate Measures to make the most of its abundant comedic elements, there is a serious undertone to the work: strict, by-the-book power can lead to corruption and bad government. It’s impossible to miss the underlying parallel to the current political climate. Other credits include Music Direction and Orchestrations by David Hancock Turner, Scenic Design by James Morgan, Costumes by Nicole Wee, Lighting Design by Paul Miller, and Sound Design by Julian Evans.
Desperate Measures originally appeared in the New York Musical Theatre Festival and is presented at The York as part of its Developmental Reading Series. It has been extended through December 31.
Shari Lifland is a New York City-area writer who loves being in the room where it happens–on or Off Broadway.