The comical plot of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure radiates hilarity and melodic, witty grace in the glorious musical Desperate Measures, currently at the York Theatre. With book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by David Friedman, the clever, comedic twists of the story run rampant. Indeed, this high farce, set to an illustrative musical score, both appealing and profound, delivers moment-to-moment joyous excitement.
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 recall the amazing work of the great Graciela Daniele. Additionally, the six-member cast portray the spin-off Shakespearean characters with invested realism and inventiveness. Their unmatched singing and cavorting through the 1890s Old West setting transforms 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 the wonderful reminder that laughter is like a wholesome medicine. So! You need a dose of healthful chortles? This show offers them in great and nutritious abundance.
In “The Ballad of Johnny Blood” the ensemble and Johnny (an adorable, multi-talented, effusive and expertly winning Conor Ryan), introduce the conflict. Johnny will hang for the love of a woman who unwittingly caused his downfall when he shot his rival in self-defense. However, the prisoner 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 territory’s law-and-order (and fascist sexual predator) governor (the hilarious, preening 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 (named Susanna) to visit the governor, the Sheriff sings “That’s Just How It Is.” The superb lyrics of this tuneful song, beautifully rendered by Saide, carry one of the production’s vital themes: that an unfair culture creates economic injustice. While the rich prosper, the children of the poor suffer. Rarely can one overturn 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.
The novitiate, who has yet to take her vows, has no idea of the governor’s nefariousness. We, however, recognize his qualities immediately, with the song “Some Day They Will Thank Me,” in which the arrogant, presumptive martinet reveals he is a blackguard. 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, he 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 to trade her chastity for his life. The humorous debate that ensues leaves him facing death. 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.
The Governor’s fabulous seduction scene, the ensuing hijinks, and the heroic actions of Johnny’s love Bella (the wonderful Lauren Molina) transport us to comedic heights. Memorable and engaging, this is a production where the smarmy villain receives his come-uppance. And an alcoholic, atheist priest (the funny Gary Marachek) manages to redeem himself. There is love, heroism, surprising justice, and redemption for even the wicked – perhaps! As for the specifics, this review holds no spoilers. You will just have to see this most superb musical production to discover for yourself its incredibly clever rhymes and tremendous entertainment.
I cannot say enough about the music (folks have asked when CDs will go on sale), as well as the lyrics and book by the prodigiously adroit team of Kellogg and Friedman. The functional, minimalistic Western sets embody the humor, time, and place as do the costumes. Their simplicity carries the farce and comedy, yet makes room for the dark, ironic undertones. Thankfully, the characters suit the measure with which they have bestowed with grace and beauty. However, such does not occur in life, as Kellogg reminds us – and as Shakespeare reminds us in Measure for Measure itself.
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 and in life. Both works reflect the vicissitudes that confront individuals whether in the Old West 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, and riotously in Desperate Measures is very welcome for us at this time.
Kudos to musicians David Hancock Turner, Justin Rothberg, Joseph Wallace, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman. And accolades to the design team, James Morgan, Nicole Wee, Paul Miller, and 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 26 November.