Desperate Measures by David Friedman & Peter Kellogg. York Theatre, New York.
The most fun of the 2017-18 theater season, so far, is a new musical by David Friedman and Peter Kellogg at the York Theatre which has been extended through November 26. Called Desperate Measures, it is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, set in the American Wild West in 1890.
Measure for Measure’s theme is justice versus mercy, and Shakespeare presented a contrast between corruption and purity. In the plot that’s echoed in this musical, a man named Claudio is sentenced to death. He asks his sister Isabella, a novice nun, to intercede with the strict ruler of the city, Angelo, who offers to spare Claudio’s life if Isabella will have sex with him. Isabella threatens to publicly expose his lechery, and he tells her that no one will believe her because he’s a powerful man; in effect, he’s so famous he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.
In the original, she recruits a prostitute to pretend to be Isabella and have sex with Angelo in the dark. This is known to theater buffs as “the bed trick” and it’s been copied in many other plays. In this new musical, the good guys get a saloon girl to be the substitute. Johnny Blood is Kellogg & Friedman’s Claudio. He’s a hot-tempered cowboy sentenced to hang for killing a man in a bar fight. His sister, the novice nun, promises the corrupt governor that she’ll go to bed with him if he spares her brother’s life. Participating in humorous complications are a hard-bitten sheriff, that saloon girl, and a priest who reads Nietzsche.
Friedman’s music has a country flavor but its appeal is not limted to country fans. This really is Jewish country music, because it maintains some of the traditions of Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein. The score contains bits of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and a hint of R&H’s settling of “a brand new state” in Oklahoma! Much of the music is a good-natured tribute to Western movies, recalling the themes from Rawhide and “Do Not Forsake Me O My Darlin” from High Noon — both by Dimitri Tiomkin.
Friedman also uses a catchy rhumba, “In the Dark,” to close Act I and a waltz in Act II as part of a melodic, varied song list. The script by Kellogg is in verse that rhymes, adding to the enjoyment while subtly reminding us of the show’s source. When audiences realize that some of the words are rhyming, they feel as if their intelligence is being flattered.
The cast delivers great ensemble work. Conor Ryan is endearing as Johnny Blood. Peter Saide belts strongly as the good-guy sheriff. Emma Degerstedt is the essence of purity as the nun known as Sister Mary Jo and displays a beautiful voice on Friedman ballads. Veteran actor Nick Wyman is the amusing Trump-like governor, and Lauren Molina is delightful as the saloon gal. Gary Marachek takes the smallish role of the priest who doesn’t believe in God and makes it captivating. All of them enliven the show with clever business that seems natural to their characters.
The simple set by the York Theatre’s artistic director, James Morgan, economically presents everything that’s essential to the story, suggesting that this show could easily travel to regional theaters. Bill Castellino directs the production with constant action and split-second timing. David Hancock Turner leads a spirited band that includes mandolin, banjo and guitar.