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Desperate Measures

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 1, 2017

Lauren Molina, Peter Saide, Conor Ryan, Nick Wyman,
Emma Degerstedt, and Gary Marachek.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Something's happened to Peter Kellogg. The librettist-lyricist, for decades, was known primarily for Anna Karenina: The Musical, an unwieldy Tolstoyan adaptation that frolicked unhappily on Broadway for six weeks in 1992. Now, suddenly, Kellogg's everywhere, and in a very different mood. In July he turned up at the Davenport Theatre, in collaboration with composer David Friedman, for Money Talks, a silly, sloppy, but not unenjoyable look at the musical adventures of a $100 bill. Now he and Friedman are back, at the York, with Desperate Measures, plopping Measure for Measure down in pre-state Arizona territory, and meddling with the plot just enough to tuck in some of Shakespeare's loose ends. Again, silly reigns supreme, and this one's a lot neater than Money Talks. Most of Desperate Measures is a hoot.

Kellogg reduces the Bard's dramatis personae down to a cast of six. On James Morgan's cheerful, comic-book set, Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan, with an ingratiating hangdog look and a walloping tenor) is about to be hanged by the territory's governor, von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman, employing a fun Harvey Korman German accent). Note that name, as it's pretty characteristic of the humor level. But the jokes are so constant, and director-choreographer Bill Castellino's touch so deft, that—as in, say, The Book of Mormon—the atmosphere becomes supercharged with hilarity, and even the lesser gags land. These include punny street signs—Mane Street, and Bridle Chapel for weddings, because, you see, it's the West. In the governor's office hangs Justice Stops Here, and in his bedroom, Justice Sleeps Here. Silly, I tell you.

Von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber will spare Johnny's life on one condition: that he may deflower Johnny's novitiate sister, Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), who's about to become Sister Mary Jo. Sheriff Green (Peter Saide, who takes a while to warm up, but stays in the proper state of daffiness once he does) urges her to accept, but she won't, leading to Plan B: Switch her in the dark with Bella (Lauren Molina), the bawdy dance-hall girl who's also Johnny's main squeeze, and who's already been deflowered many times over. That's pretty much it, except Kellogg also plunks down a romance between the sheriff and Susanna, and their saving-Johnny's-life scheme also involves deceiving Father Morse (Gary Marachek), a very unclerical cleric who drinks too much, questions God's existence, and has a thing for Nietzsche. Whom he rhymes with "peachy."

Did I mention the whole thing is in rhymed dialogue, not just the songs? This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's clever, and some neat jokes and rhymes are crammed into all the iambic pentameter and other meters. (The about-to-be-hanged Johnny, to Bella: "I would love you till I die." Bella: "Six more hours? What a guy.") On the other, it gets us in the habit of listening for the rhyme so hard that some relevant plot information risks going ignored, and anticipating the rhyme sometimes spoils the joke. Give Kellogg an A for effort, though, and a B+ for execution. He's unstinting on the sight gags, too: A key Act Two confrontation even hinges on duplicating the famous mirror scene from Duck Soup, which Molina and Degerstedt carry off fabulously.

Molina's a wonderful Bella—throaty, saucy, and she even dances in character. And Degerstedt, saddled with executing one of musical comedy's hoarier conventions, the I-suddenly-realize-I'm-in-love ballad, makes "What Is This Feeling" warm and appealing. Kellogg and Friedman are in good form throughout: You'll almost certainly exit humming "It's a Beautiful Day for a Lifelong Commitment," Bella's "It's Getting Hot in Here" is a frisky diegetic that also tells us a lot about her, and "In the Dark," the Act One finale, distributes its verses smartly among all the principals, revealing something about every one of them while forwarding the plot. David Hancock Turner leads a foot-stomping four-piece band, including, of all things, a mandolin.

"Audiences are loving it," said set designer Morgan, who's also the York's artistic director, in his traditional opening remarks, and this audience sure did. There's nothing innovative about Desperate Measures, which, every note and every word, sounds like it could have been written in 1962. But hey, that wasn't a bad era for musical comedy. This one's as escapist as escapist can be, and with so much to escape from in 2017, that's a valuable service. My favorite moment may have been Johnny accusing the free-loving Bella of "betrayal," and she replies that that's pretty lame, "even from a may-ull." A vowel-bending, show-my-prowess-be-a-lion-not-a-mowess trick rhyme of the sort we used to count on from Yip Harburg or Johnny Mercer, and how we've missed such things. Welcome back.

Desperate Measures
Through October 15
The York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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