How does one take a noted problem play by Shakespeare filled with abuses of political power and flagrant inequality between the sexes and somehow transform it into a two-hour musical comedy that, despite the aforementioned problems, is utterly zany, ridiculously charming and unapologetically entertaining?
May I suggest you ask Peter Kellogg and David Friedman, who, penned the book and lyrics and music respectively for the new musical Desperate Measures, which, despite the politically charged atmosphere of today’s culture, have managed to do just that. Even this critic, who found herself squirming uncomfortably in the seat of many a theater this past season, was shaking with laughter more than she was raising an eyebrow throughout this unabashedly old-fashioned (the book is written entirely in rhyming couplets) but undeniably all-too-relevant production.
Opening at New World Stages after an extended run at the York Theatre Company, Desperate Measures loosely adapts Shakespeare’s comedy Measure for Measure. (Note the emphasis on “loosely.”) The Bard’s examination of both moral and criminal justice is now plunked in the middle of the Wild West in the late 1800s where Johnny Blood, a dim-witted and hot-tempered cowboy, is arrested and set to hang for the murder of a romantic rival. The kind-hearted Sheriff Martin Green enlists Johnny’s estranged sister Susanna, a sister at a convent scheduled to take her vows in just two days, to beg for her brother’s life to the notoriously cold-hearted Governor Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber.
The governor is moved by Susanna’s plea, but it’s lust rather than justice that motivates him: he will free her brother only if she sleeps with him. Reluctant to give up her chastity, Susanna is aided by the Sheriff in arranging a plan of deception. Instead of the aspiring nun slipping between the Governor’s sheets, a hired girl will be his lover for the night. And who ends up taking on the task other than Bella, Johnny’s lover? But she plays the part so well that the Governor wants more: a lifetime of it, to be exact. He will only free Johnny – who is sharing his cell with an alcoholic priest who has lost his faith in God and drunkenly quotes Nietzsche – if Susanna marries him.
It’s a convoluted plot to be sure, and a problematic one. Thoughts of recent news headlines are inevitable when watching the Governor callously makes his demands, oblivious to Susanna’s objections. And upon learning that Bella slept with the Governor, Johnny at first overlooks the fact that she did it to save his life and instead and is hurt by her seeming infidelity. In the hands of a lesser cast, Desperate Measures could be more problem than play, but under Bill Castellino’s direction, this ensemble shows, rather than tells, the moral questions and quandaries and maintains a feather-light touch, landing laughs while also portraying the problems at hand.
It’s greatly due to this tight-knit, talented ensemble that such a balance can be maintained. Each cast member is undeniably excellent. As Johnny Blood, Conor Ryan is charmingly slow and good-natured enough that it’s possible to believe he truly didn’t mean to hurt anyone. His cellmate, the drunken Father Morse, is brought to life by Gary Marachek, confidently portraying the challenging balance of both depression and humor. Peter Saide’s Sheriff Green is a touching mix of stoic masculinity and benevolence, and the obviously inevitable romance between him and Sarah Parnicky’s cheerfully purposeful Susanna is sweet, with a refreshing touch of sarcasm.
Both Nick Wyman and Lauren Molina’s characters are written with broader strokes, Wyman with his all-but-mustache-twirling villain (who really just wants everyone to like him) and Molina with her raunchy, good-time gal who loves Johnny but will keep working the saloons to pay the bills. A fearless physical comedian brimming with zany energy and unbridled sexuality, Molina reminds one of Madeline Kahn, or perhaps Guys and Dolls’ Adelaide, transported to the West from New York.
Ryan is a perfect match for Molina, and their dueling duet “Just for You,” in which they each rattle off the unsavory things they’ve done out of devotion for the other, is the highlight of the second act. It’s a hilarious showcase for both, reminiscent of Annie Get Your Gun’s “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.”
Also refreshing is Bella’s ownership of her sexuality; rather than attempt to hide from Johnny that she slept with the Governor, or admit it with shame, she takes pride in her act of love for him when the two face off in song.
Friedman’s score is a delightful variety of melodies, including the Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque “Someday They Will Thank Me,” to the thrilling harmonies in “In the Dark,” to the back-and-forth conversational number “About Last Night.” Parnicky, the only new cast member from the York production, is especially enjoyable in “What Is this Feeling,” musing on of her growing attraction to the Sheriff while simultaneously commenting on the cliché of the innocent ingenue’s soaring love ballad.
Such winking humor is maintained throughout the play. James Morgan’s rustic set, consisting of faded wood walls and bales of hay utilized as furniture, brandishes tongue-in-cheek signs in each scene: the paper is “The Daily Noose,” the governor’s quarter are brandished, “Justice stops here” and the town’s central avenue is “Mane Street.”
In present-day culture of increasing awareness of sexual harassment and abuses of power, Desperate Measures could be easily become a problematic show. But the sheer absurdity of the scenes, combined with the hilarity and subtlety of the performances, establishes it a charming, thought-provoking evening. Amidst the antics of the Governor’s demands and the schemes to outsmart him, he turns to the audience and asks, “Before you rush to blame, would you not act the same?”
It’s a good question to ponder in between the laughs.