Sound Advice Reviews
Desperate Measures: Full of pleasures
From The Boys from Syracuse to the boys in the gangs of West Side Story to Lone Star Love and the lovers in Kiss Me, Kate, Shakespeare's plays have been the launching pad for many a musical over the years. The rewarding cast recording of Desperate Measures adds a grinning entry to the collection.
If you like the face of musical theatre to have a twinkle in its eye and a grin as broad as its humor, then the show descriptively subtitled "A Musical Comedy Gone Wild" is very likely your cup of brisk, sweetened iced tea. Here, time-tested recipes for making old-school entertaining songs are followed knowingly by David Friedman (composer) and Peter Kellogg (lyrics; also the bookwriter, continuing his rhyming mission into the dialogue) and result in sparklingly delicious fun chewed on with apparent relish by a canny cast of six. Currently running at New World Stages Off-Broadway, the company recently celebrated its 100th performance there after a thrice-extended run at the York Theatre (that 2017 production is what's captured in the release).
David Hancock Turner's music direction is a joy, and note that he also did the orchestrations and is on piano and harmonica. (Composer Friedman did the vocal arrangements.) I am especially pleased to hear the talented Douglas Waterbury-Tieman on fiddle and mandolin, as this very able player brings much of the zip, crispness, and authentic country flavor without veering into cliche or genre overkill. Justin Rothberg (various string instruments) and bassist Joseph Wallace are the other two original quartet-mates. They are joined by four more players in the recording studio, adding two violinists and two cellists.
Friedman's strong suit of uber-sincere, moving melodies with his own heart-on-sleeve, unapologetically sensitive lyrics, memorably recorded by the late muse, cabaret's Nancy LaMott, are hardly the order of the day here. But we get flashes of it in a number called "Look in Your Heart" and another called "Stop There," which, respectively, ask characters to open up or to impose self-control or self-doubt for self-preservation. (Love can be a pesky thing to avoid.) But for the most part, adjectives like "rollicking" and "bouncy" can best describe this material. And that is a good thing.
With a sly sensibility that doesn't let the cheer become sugar-coated, we're brought to a happy place with instrumental romps that bookend the album. Yes, listening all the way through in sequence is suggested to follow the flow, but the physical CD package (there is a digital booklet for downloaded albums) has a synopsis included for those who don't know this show or the source material, and the lyrics are all here, too, as are the spoken words heard.
"Loosely based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Desperate Measures is comfort food those with a steady diet of musical comedies will want to add to their listening menus. Reset in America's old West past with a winking eye at the present (there's a modern motto reference to a preference to "Make Arizona Great Again"), the gleeful goings-on gallop along with fizz and spunk. And, when the parties making this a big party pause for a ballad, the respite is rich rather than bland filler. The prime example is the moment when feelings of romantic attraction are repressed and then confessed in "What Is This Feeling," sung byspoiler alerta Sister who is a prisoner's sister who may trade in her nun's veil for a wedding veil. It's rich writing deftly delivered by Emma Degerstedt in her satisfyingly sweet soprano, with thoughtful, finely tuned phrasing. Her discomfort and reluctant realization of being pierced by love's arrow make this endearing gem of a performance lovely without being insipid or overly sincere in a score which often has its sometimes sharp tongue held firmly in cheek.
Veteran Nick Wyman plays the governor as a broad character with an equally broad accent, a hoot as he asserts, somewhat maniacally, "Some Day They Will Thank Me," as if perhaps still convincing himself that his thinking outside the box will result in ultimately better times for all (or all who agree with him, anyway, that things have run amuck). Empathy-challenged, taking advantage of his seat of power, he is not above propositioning the nun as a return favor for sparing the life of her condemned brother. That sibling is robustly sung by Conor Ryan and his vigor and breezy air make one want to short-list him for the leading male role in Oklahoma!.
And the show's other female player, the always-welcome Lauren Molina, would be a no-brainer fit as Oklahoma!'s Ado Annie, as she is all spunk and sass here as Bella, a gal who plays things fast and loose, in more ways than one. Her duet with Ryan, "Just for You" (happily reprised, with lots of "juice"), is funny and feisty in the one-upmanship tradition of "Anything You Can Do" from another Annie (the one who got her gun). It's what used to be called a "take-home tune" you instantly fall in love with, hum on the way out of the theatre, with a smile on your face. The versatile Miss Molina is consistently engaging here; her well-delivered showpiece, a saloon gal strip-tease number called "It's Getting Hot in Here," will bring an extra "inside joke" chuckle for those who know her as the female half of The Skivvies, the nightclub duo doing show tunes in their underwear. Oh, and doing double duty just for the recording, she joins the band to play as one of four string players added. She plays cello, as she did in the John Doyle-directed Sweeney Todd, as Johanna.
Peter Saide and Gary Marachek ably round out the cast as the sheriff and priest, respectively. And, it surely seems, a good time is had by all. I hate to be ungratefully greedy after being a glutton devouring this generous sampling of so many tracks served up so well with unflagging power, but I wish that there were more of the marvelous harmony singing we hear near the end and more big, grand heroic flourishes from the vibrant Mr. Ryan. But these folks are consistently entertaining, albeit in that frothy way of simple characters we simply aren't asked to take very seriously, whether they are singing the plain facts about a literal life-and-death situation ("It's Good to Be Alive") or making light (or not) of what happens "In the Dark" (think between the sheets, for an offstage scene of deception).
Things are kept light and bubbly under Bill Castellino's direction and the merry-to-madcap musical ride with occasional smooth as silk, change of pace passages. Producer Robert Sher, who brought us such powerhouse cast recordings as Paper Mill's Follies and Nice Work If You Can Get It, does nice work indeed, again, and the whole recording is crisp and kinetic, with a clean sound bringing out much detail. And if joy can be captured, it's done here, in great measure.