Shakespeare is getting a Wild West twist this fall with Desperate Measures at the York Theatre Company. The new musical transports Measure for Measure to the American frontier in a high-energy adaptation by Peter Kellogg and David Friedman that charms and entertains.
Directed by Bill Castellino, Desperate Measures tells the tale of Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan), a charismatic and rambunctious young man who is days away from being hanged after shooting a man in a bar fight over the woman he loves. But there’s enough reasonable doubt to make a case for his innocence—if the territory’s strict German ruler, Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) will give him a chance. It’s then up to Johnny’s sister, soon-to-be-nun Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), the town’s sheriff (Peter Saide), and Johnny’s lover, the saloon girl Bella (Lauren Molina), to persuade the governor to set Johnny free. The three formulate a plan complete with disguised identities, in true Shakespearean fashion, resulting in hilarious hijinks and unexpected attraction.
While Measure for Measure is known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” that blend tragedy and comedy, though, Desperate Measures strikes a distinctly lighthearted tone with its Western setting. The musical is anything but subtle, relying on broad humor and farcical situations to bring its outrageous tale to life. Adding to the show’s exuberance is book writer Kellogg’s decision to have the characters speak in rhyming verse, a choice that connects the show to its Shakespearean origins but also ensures that even the darkest moments feel melodious and light.
Taking such a broad approach runs the risk of coming off as hokey and grating, but Desperate Measures manages to transcend its corny potential and genuinely entertain. Though the rhyming can be slightly tiresome at moments, and the show’s overt humor doesn’t always land—a subplot about an alcoholic priest (Gary Marachek) with a Nietzsche obsession sometimes feels a bit much—the show is smartly structured, balancing its exaggerated shenanigans with enough subtle, tender moments to add nuance and keep its characters from being mere clichés. The show is also packed with witty touches, and Kellogg and Friedman’s country-tinged score combines classic musical theater with a Western sound.
Desperate Measures’ success, however, is largely owed to its cast of six, who ensure that the musical’s over-the-top nature comes across with a balance of humor and humanity. The performers winningly take on the show’s heightened plot twists but also manage to portray three-dimensional human beings. Molina, playing the free-wheeling saloon girl whose love for Johnny sends her into another man’s bed—and then to the nunnery—is a particular standout, with a commanding stage presence and deft comic timing that makes her participation in the plot’s farcical antics the most entertaining moments of the show. Molina is but one member of a talented cast, however, with comic chops and pitch-perfect vocals.
Ryan’s appealing, goofy portrayal of the buoyant but slightly dim-witted Johnny makes the audience root for his freedom, and the actor also brings a warm sincerity to his more earnest solo, “Good to be Alive.” As the town sheriff, Saide serves as a compelling straight man for Molina and Degerstedt’s comedic escapades, while Saide and Degerstedt have endearing chemistry as the show’s unlikely lovers. The show’s few group numbers are especially delightful, as the performers’ strong harmonies fill the York Theatre’s small stage with a powerful sound.
That space has been used well by James Morgan’s basic yet evocative set design. The play’s Old West setting is further suggested through the simple wooden interior of a country barn, while the light shining through the back wall’s wooden slats simply yet effectively evokes the wide-open prairie skies. Pun-filled signs that introduce each scene are especially enjoyable, from “Our Lady of the Tumbleweeds” to the Western thoroughfare of “Mane Street.”
The cast’s entertaining capers and Castellino’s tight direction ensure that the musical doesn’t overstay its welcome, moving forward at a brisk pace and captivating for the entire two-hour running time. Shakespearean musical adaptations may be a dime a dozen, but Desperate Measures shows how such translation can be done right, maintaining a quick wit, broad accessibility and bawdy spirit that feel in line with the Bard. Though Measure for Measure may be more than 400 years old, Desperate Measures proves that Shakespeare’s comic plotting remains fresh.
Desperate Measures runs through Oct. 29 at the York Theatre Company (619 Lexington Ave.; entrance on 54th Street). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and matinees take place at 2:30 Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 935-5820 or visit YorkTheatre.org.