Shakespearean spoofs are almost as old as Shakespeare himself, dating back to at least the Restoration period. Although the vast majority has faded into history, there are still some real standouts like the classic musical Kiss Me, Kate, which thanks largely to Cole Porter is arguably even more enjoyable than its source material, a rare feat that the relatively new musical Desperate Measures, now in its second off-Broadway run, also accomplishes.
Admittedly, of course, when it comes to eclipsing Shakespeare in pure entertainment value, Porter’s The Taming of the Shrew takeoff had a much higher mountain to climb than Desperate Measures, which is based on Measure for Measure, a notoriously serious Shakespearean comedy about the difference between justice and morality. Wisely, book writer and lyricist Peter Kellogg has taken extensive liberties with the Bard’s problem play, tossing out most of the weightier material and caricaturing the rest.
Kellogg has also moved the setting from early modern Vienna to the Old West, where the unfortunate Johnny Blood (a wonderfully loose-limbed Conor Ryan) is stuck in a jail cell, awaiting his date with the gallows for a murder that even the sheriff (Peter Saide) thinks was self-defense. The territory’s Teutonic governor (Nick Wyman), however, doesn’t care about any mitigating circumstances. A stern devotee of law and order, he’s willing to let Johnny swing, if it contributes to his rigid definition of the common good. Well, that is until the governor (whose ridiculously long name approaches the length of this parenthetical comment) meets Johnny’s comely sister Susanna (Sarah Parnicky), a novitiate, who is a week away from taking her final vows. Undeterred by the veil and rosary beads, the governor makes the soon-to-be Sister Mary Jo a decidedly indecent proposal for securing her brother’s freedom.
But chastity is given a fighting chance, as Kellogg makes use of the infamously convoluted plot device in Measure for Measure: the bed trick, whereby a desired sexual partner is substituted for another one without ever clueing in the desirer. In the case of Desperate Measures, a dance-hall courtesan (Lauren Molina), agrees to serve as Susanna’s carnal stand-in free-of-charge, because she’s in love with Johnny. Though, since the feelings are mutual, Johnny’s not thrilled when he finds out about the plan.
While turning Shakespeare’s plot on its head with screwball glee, Kellogg still manages to sneak in a little gravitas through the score with lyrics like “One man plays the part of king/Another man scrapes by/One man’s children get to eat/Another’s get to cry.” But, for the most part, Kellogg, and composer David Friedman, keep it light, with catchy, countrified songs that allow the cast to show off some Broadway-quality pipes.
With the exception of Parnicky, all of the actors appeared in the show’s earlier production. Their obvious comfort with the material has allowed for some hilariously fearless mugging, especially from Ryan, Molina, Wyman, and Gary Marachek, who portrays a Nietzsche-adoring priest with a severe drinking problem. Of this lot, Molina is the funniest, though the rest certainly are no slouches when it comes to pulling faces.
As the musical’s two most upright (and uptight) characters, Saide and Parnicky largely have to play it straight. But, like the rest of the clever cast, they also find laughs between the lines, in particular as it becomes clear that the sheriff and aspiring nun’s shared passion to save Johnny is turning into a shared passion for each other.
Director Bill Castellino mostly keeps everything zipping along, smartly recognizing that speed is the great ally of zany. However, he does occasionally let the actors pause the action, so the audience can savor one of Kellogg’s shamelessly forced rhymes from the all-verse libretto.
At the recent Outer Critics Circle Awards, Desperate Measures took the top prize for best off-Broadway musical, an achievement due in no small part to its exceptional production elements, led by James Morgan’s lithe puzzle-box set, which convincingly evokes multiple desert locales while holding a few surprise jokes of its own. And, then, there is Paul Miller’s lighting, Julian Evans’ sound, and Nicole Wee’s costumes, each of them contributing a large dose of verisimilitude and humor to the proceedings.
In terms of intellectual depth, Desperate Measures doesn’t come close to matching its inspiration, but, if I’m being honest, it’s the one I’d most like to see again.
Desperate Measures (open run)
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.desperatemeasuresmusical.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission