nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
September 16, 2006
Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is an intense study of repression, compromised ethics and morals, and the value of self-sacrifice. While it certainly has its comic moments, by and large it's a deep look at the complex and frequently contradictory impulses that are part and parcel of human nature. Peter Kellogg and David Friedman's musical adaptation, Desperate Measures, is instead a silly, lighthearted musical Western seeking merely to entertain. The question, then, would seem to be: Can a defanged Measure for Measure work?
The answer: Absolutely. In this six-character version, Johnny Blood (played by Max von Essen) is about to hang for murdering a man, possibly in self-defense. He did it for the love of a saloon girl, Bella (Jenny Powers). Johnny finds himself sharing a cell with a drunken priest (Patrick Garner) who's lost his faith thanks to Nietzsche. The Sheriff (Merwin Foard) seeks out Johnny's only living relative, his sister Susanna (Ginifer King), who is a convent novice about to take her final vows. Urging her to "practice what you pray," the Sheriff convinces her to plead for Johnny's life with Governor Mueller (Nick Wyman). Mueller is rotten to the core, and suggests that the only way he'll pardon Johnny is if Susanna sleeps with him. Complications, to put it mildly, ensue. But given that this is a world in which a nun in training wears as much make-up as a working girl, the Sheriff is shrewd beneath a good-ol'-boy veneer, and all Johnny really seems to want to do is sing, everything working out for the best is guaranteed.
Friedman's music is a tuneful grab-bag, ranging from a wink at High Noon to the comic sparkler "Just for You" to the intense "In the Dark." If Kellogg's lyrics don't always rise to the occasion (Susanna's "Look in your Heart" is tedious, and a company number, "Life Takes You by Surprise," is entirely superfluous), there are many terrific numbers, particularly the Sheriff's "Stop There." And the book manages to find an excellent and consistent tone, which is no mean feat.
The cast offers immense vocal talent to the proceedings, each voice terrific and a pleasure to hear. On the acting front, some fare better than others. Wyman lacks the right touch for this kind of comedy, offering mannerisms instead of a man (he's also punishingly loud in the small theater's sound system). Powers is lovely, though one might wish for more hooker and less heart of gold, as she now seems simply to be playing a gloss on Ado Annie, and the material could stand more heat. Garner hits it just right as the sad-sack priest. Von Essen plays everything with polish and a wink, and if it's hard to forget he's an urban cowboy, he still creates a young buck with a lot of attitude and a hell of a high note. King is most problematic; she never finds the real warmth inside Susanna, leaning much more heavily toward her coldness. Without a sense that Susanna is, at heart, a loving woman, the play lacks a solid center.
Foard's Sheriff, on the other hand, is dynamite. Funny, wry, smart and heartfelt, this Sheriff is a supporting player who finds himself in the limelight, and Foard is more than up to the challenge. His performance is a complete pleasure.
It should be noted that the design work here is exceptional, from Sarah Lambert's witty, functional set to Clint Ramos's spot-on clothes to Kirk Bookman's evocative lighting. Director/choreographer Eleanor Reissa's production is overburdened with fussy, unfunny business at the beginning of the evening, but smooths out beautifully.
Desperate Measures is a delightful musical, and with some tweaking could certainly be, as their press materials say, "a hit! A very palpable hit!"