BY ELYSE TREVERS
A beautiful young woman being coerced into sex by an unscrupulous powerful older man — it sounds like a story ripped from recent headlines, but, no, it’s actually a 17th century Shakespearean play.
“Desperate Measures,” the delightful prizewinning Off-Broadway musical, is based upon Shakespeare’s “problem” play, “Measure for Measure.” Bella, the friendly saloon gal explains in the opening that the musical has been loosely adapted since “no one understands the language anyway” and “we threw out half the plot.” Okay- a bit of an exaggeration.
The writers have simplified the story and set it in the Wild West. Johnny Blood kills another man in a saloon. Although it was self-defense, he is sentenced to hang. So the earnest Sheriff Green finds Johnny’s one living relative, Sister Mary Jo, and sends her to ask the intractable Governor to pardon her brother. Although the Sister is two weeks away from taking her vows to become a nun, the Governor makes a deal with her: her chastity in exchange for her brother’s life. In order to outwit him, the clever Green has another woman take Mary Jo’s place in the dark. After that night, the Governor “falls in love” with her, so he reneges on his original promise and tries to force her to marry him in return for her brother’s life. Once more, the sheriff and the sister come up with a plan to fool the besotted Governor.
The play is simply staged with props and settings that may look amateurish, but they actually add to the show’s charm. The characters are fun and funny and endearing, and the music is quite entertaining. In deference to Shakespeare, some of the dialogue is rhymed (in fact, some of it may come from the play itself) The very talented ensemble of six sings and performs well with most of the actors reprising their original roles.
Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman (Les Misérables) is pompous and officious, and one can envision him the villain in a silent movie, twirling his mustache while the audience boos. The saloon girl Bella Rose (Lauren Molina ) does a sexy striptease and a lot of gyrating yet she’s entertaining and not at all offensive. She and her boyfriend Johnny Blood, Conor Ryan (Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert) do a wonderful duet, “Just For You” about how much they love each other and have sacrificed for one another.
Defending her, he killed the man in the bar for which he will now hang; she slept with the Governor to get a pardon for him. Sheriff Green (Peter Saide) and the Novitiate Susanna/Sister Mary Jo are destined for each other. We all see that they have great chemistry, but how long will it take them to realize it? Gary Marachek rounds out the cast as Father Morse, the perpetually- drunk priest who quotes Nietzsche and worries about existence of God.
“Desperate Measures” opened originally at the York Theater where it was so successful that it was extended three times. It closed in December and has just reopened in a larger venue at New World Stages. “Desperate Measures” won the Outer Critics Circle’s Best New Off-Broadway Musical award and it won Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics awards from The Drama Desk.
Much of the show’s success should be attributes the book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by David Friedman. The lyrics are clever and witty and the songs tuneful. I found myself actually humming songs as I left the theater. The show is clever, funny and just plain fun as justice is served, the good guys win, true love wins out and all live happily ever after. What more could anyone want?
The gal behind me, a longtime somewhat jaded critic, saw the original show at the York Theater and yet returned to see the show for the second time — this time bringing her husband. What better recommendation for a show can there be than that?