By Brian Scott Lipton
How do you solve a problem like “Measure for Measure?” Many directors have tackled William Shakespeare’s thorny play, but up until now, nobody but writers Peter Kellogg and David Friedman have been smart enough to lighten and simplify the plot, add in a jaunty country-music-inspired score, and ensure us a happy ending. (Imagine what they might do with “Hamlet”?)
The result: while true lovers of the Bard might have an objection or two, the deliciously clever Desperate Measures, now in an open-ended run at New World Stages (after an earlier engagement at the York Theatre Company where it won numerous Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards), should delight most audiences for a long time.
Set in the territory in Arizona in the late 1800s, the musical’s plot freely borrows from the central dilemma of Shakespeare’s play: the reckless if sweet-natured Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan, a wonderful physical comedian with a gorgeous tenor voice) is about to hang for killing another man in a barroom brawl. The only way he can escape his fate is if his long-estranged sister, Susanna (the lovely Sarah Parnicky) – just days away from taking her final vows as a nun – agrees to sleep with the territory’s Teutonic and untrustworthy governor (a deliciously preening Nick Wyman, making a four-course meal of his big number “Some Day They Will Thank Me”).
Susanna, who prides her virtue (not altogether convincingly) above all else, refuses the offer. But she proves willing to go along with a plan concocted by the town’s kind-hearted sheriff Martin Green (a charismatic Peter Saide) to save Johnny, which ultimately involves Johnny’s girlfriend, sassy saloon gal Bella (the absolutely hilarious Lauren Molina, who walks off with this show) and the town’s alcoholic, Nietzsche-loving priest Father Morse (a slightly over-the-top Gary Marachek).
Still, the larger question that looms over the 2 ½-hour show is not whether the plan, convoluted as it is, will work (of course, it will), but how long it will take for Susanna and Martin to admit they’ve fallen in love with each other (of course, they will). Indeed, waiting for the pair to overcome their shyness is often akin to watching The Sound of Music. (In fact, I kept waiting for the Nazis to show up.)
In addition to the cast’s sterling performances under Bill Castellino’s simple yet lively direction, and James Morgan’s easy moveable sets, what makes the musical work so well is Kellogg’s facility with rhyming dialogue (natural and rarely forced) and one of the most tuneful scores of recent vintage: a spirited duet for Johnny and Bella, “Just For You;” a pair of lovely love ballads, “Stop There” and “What Is This Feeling;” and a trio of terrific group numbers, “It Doesn’t Hurt to Try,” “In the Dark,” and “Life Takes You By Surprise” are all wonderful earworms.
Indeed, in these days when so many people feel overcome with inner doom and gloom, a visit to Desperate Measures may be the perfect pick-me-up; like Johnny, you may exit the theater singing “It’s Good to Be Alive.”
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Desperate Measures, New World Stages, 340 West 50 Street, NYC, open run, Telecharge.com . 212 239 6200