If you are looking for a good time at an off-Broadway show, I guarantee that you’ll find it in “Desperate Measures,” a musical high presented at the York Theater Company in association with Cecilia Lin and Hu Guo. With book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg, music by David Friedman, razor-sharp direction and choreography by Bill Castellino and six wonderfully entertaining cast members, the show is inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”
The term “inspired by” is key here. Fortunately, this isn’t a case of some egotistical director trying to present the Bard’s actual text in a misguided way that’s different. “Desperate Measures” stands firmly on its own, triggered by Shakespeare, but emerging as an original, joyful romp. In a nod to the Bard, Kellogg has cleverly written the book in verse, and the talented cast members dispense the lines trippingly on the tongue with such ease that the dialogue comes across as totally natural conversation.
The setting is somewhere out West in the late 1800s, and James Morgan, the York’s Producing Artistic Director, has designed a simple but amusing set that encompasses a jail, a governor’s office, his bedroom and a general playing area. There is a hanging rope to remind us that Johnny Blood, played with delightful vapidity by Conor Ryan, is due to be hanged for killing a man (allegedly in self-defense), unless he gets a reprieve from the governor. Sheriff Martin Green, the show’s male romantic lead played by Peter Saide, is on Johnny’s side. He is also in love with Johnny’s sister, Susanna, who is becoming a nun and is portrayed winsomely by female lead Emma Degerstedt.
Susanna, in nun’s habit, visits to governor to appeal that he spare her brother. Her plea is met with a condition—that she give her body to him in bed, something as a virgin she cannot do. She and the sheriff concoct a plot that involves the local lady of ill-repute, Bella Rose, hilariously played by Lauren Molina with award-level flare and body movements to match, to dress like a nun and, with the lights out, sneak into the governor’s bed as a substitute while Susanna sneaks away.
As for the governor, colorfully named Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (try and pronounce it), Nick Wyman plays him enjoyably in an appropriately over-the-top performance, whether via his acting or his singing “Some Day They Will Thank Me” and “What a Night.” As we see as the plot expands, von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber’s word is not his bond. Another character providing laughs is the booze-soaked priest, Father Morse, played in a perpetual stupor by Gary Marachek.
There is a scene that captures the show’s zaniness when the sheriff cooperatively leaves the key to Johnny’s cell just out of hand-reach, but within reach of being pulled close enough by Johnny using his boot. The look on none-too-bright Johnny when the penny drops that he is meant to escape is priceless.
All of the scheming and romantic attractions are advanced by the charming score and the excellent voices of the cast members. Degerstedt has a golden soprano that re-enforces her appealing acting, as when she sings “Look into Your Heart.” Saide as Sheriff Green is a natural leading man with a strong voice, exemplified in “That’s Just How It Is” and signing with Susanna and Bella, “The Way You Feel on the Inside.” Ryan as Johnny also hits a strong vocal mark with “Good to be Alive.”
The musical zips along merrily with fine integration of action and song, and by the end, when all has been colorfully worked out, one can applaud gratefully for all of the fun packed into this compact all-around display of talent. Credit is especially due the musical direction and orchestrations by David Hancock Turner, also at the piano, and the three musicians who join in bringing the score to life—Justin Rothberg, guitar and banjo, Joseph Wallace, double bass and Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, fiddle and mandolin. At the York Theater at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street). Phone: 212-935-5824. Reviewed October 2, 2017.