[Ed. Note: This is the first of three TheaterMania review roundups of shows in the third annual New York Musical Theatre Festival.]

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Max Von Essen in Desperate Measures
(© Steve Rosen)
Max Von Essen
in Desperate Measures
(© Steve Rosen)
If you liked Lone Star Love, you may well adore the Peter Kellogg-David Friedman musical Desperate Measures. Both tuners have country/western tinged scores and both are based on plays by Shakespeare. But one of the major differences between the two is that, whereas the former was inspired by the out-and-out comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, Desperate Measures is drawn from the much darker Measure for Measure, about a woman who agrees to have sex with a man in power in order to save the life of her condemned brother.

In the musical, the fellow facing the gallows is Johnny Blood (Max von Essen); his potential savior is his sister, the novice nun Sister Helena (Ginifer King); and the man in power is the moustache-twirling Governor Mueller (Nick Wyman). Rounding out the cast of this delightful, tuneful, six-character show are Merwin Foard as Sheriff Griggs; Jenny Powers as dance-hall girl Bella Rose; and Patrick Garner as Father Burns, a perpetually plotzed priest.

Directed and choreographed with just the right touch by Eleanor Reissa, Desperate Measures is not quite perfect in terms of the writing. Some of the plot contrivances are a bit much -- for example, the outcome of the plot rests on a letter that the priest has supposedly received from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche -- and some of the humor about a nun having sex is unseemly. Also, it's hard to imagine why the creators chose to make the governor a man of German extraction. This adds nothing to the plot, though Wyman does the accent very well.

Still, there's so much that's great in this show -- especially its score -- that the flaws amount to little. There are lots of laughs along the way as the sheriff comes up with and executes a plan to substitute Bella for Helena in the governor's bed without his knowledge. The songs, from the stirring opening number to the pretty ballad "Look In Your Heart" to the show-stopping comic duet "Just For You" (sung by Johnny and Bella), are fabulous with the sole exception of the governor's dull establishing number, "Respect for the Law."

Von Essen sings gloriously, looks great, and oozes charisma as Johnny Blood, whose real last name turns out to be Blodgett (like Esther). King is lovely as his devoted sibling, and the golden-voiced Foard is perfect as the sheriff. Powers is a treat as the floozy with a heart of gold, especially in her showcase number, "It's Getting Hot in Here." As for Garner, he does what he can with the not-so-well-written role of the Padre. The production values are equally impressive, most notably Marcus Karlstad's sound design, which is just about the best I've ever heard anywhere. This is one of those shows that, despite its minor lapses, does NYMF proud.

-- M.P.

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Deven May, Marla Schaffel, and Louis Tucci in Warrior
(© Bruce Glikas)
Deven May, Marla Schaffel, and Louis Tucci in Warrior
(© Bruce Glikas)
One suspects that Marcus Hummon's Warrior is drawing NYMF audiences largely because of its two leads: the awesomely talented Deven May, who triumphed Off-Broadway in Bat Boy but, for some reason, hasn't yet achieved the level of musical theater stardom that he richly deserves; and Marla Schaffel, beloved for her performance in the title role of the flop Broadway musical Jane Eyre. Sadly, Warrior is a major disappointment in its writing if not in its casting.

The show's problems begin with its framing device. The opening scene takes place in 1950 at the Ohio State Fair, where an aged Thorpe -- a Native American who was one of the country's greatest athletes in his prime -- is reduced to doing traditional dances in the garb of an Indian Chief. The first lines are delivered by Schaffel in the odd guise of a female barker; we soon learn that her multi-purpose character is Whiskey, the embodiment of the liquor that would plague the alcoholic Thorpe throughout his life.

While Schaffel as Whiskey speaks and May as Thorpe dances, the rest of the cast members are seated around them on a set that resembles a circus ring; they remain onstage for virtually the entire performance, observing the proceedings when not actually participating. Throughout the show, various figures in Thorpe's life appear, often addressing the audience directly. With so many ideas that we've seen before, Warrior rather resembles a misbegotten mish-mash of Barnum, Chicago, Equus, and Floyd Collins, although the quality of the writing isn't comparable to any of those shows.

Hummon is a Grammy Award-winning composer of songs for such folk as Wynonna and Tim McGraw, so it's not surprising that much of the music he has written for Warrior is excellent. But his book is poorly crafted, sabotaged by yards of clunky exposition; and the bulk of his lyrics are even worse, marred by so many false rhymes that when a true rhyme does come along, it almost sounds odd. (Why do so many contemporary lyricists write like this? Do they feel that real rhymes make a song seem old-fashioned and uncool, or are they simply not skilled enough to come up with them?)

In addition to May and Schaffel, the 12-person cast includes Sherie Austin as Jim's first love, Iva; Louis Tucci as his first coach, Pop Warner; and T.J. Mannix as his abusive father. Under the direction of Michael Bush, some of the actors are less successful than others in dealing with the libretto. But the show is consistently well sung, and the band plays very well under musical director Dana Rowe.

Warrior is all the more of a letdown in that it starts out with a terrific opening number, "My America is Gone," thrillingly performed by May and the entire company. The song has a beautiful, elegiac melody -- and it even contains two sets of true rhymes in the first A-section! It's too bad that Hummon's score, not to mention his book, never thereafter rises to this level of accomplishment.

-- M.P.

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Gavin Lewis, Laura Jordan, and Reed Prescott
in Oedipus for Kids!
(© Jori Klein)
Gavin Lewis, Laura Jordan, and Reed Prescott
in Oedipus for Kids!
(© Jori Klein)
"Whatever Oedipus touches, Oedipus wrecks / Since life got a little complex." So sings the title character in the often amusing but, dare we say it, tragically flawed Oedipus for Kids!

The musical within this musical is presented by the fictional Fuzzy Ducks Theatre Company, whose mission is to bring such classics as Titus Andronicus and Uncle Tom's Cabin to children. We witness the company's staging of Oedipus for a live audience, as well as the backstage drama that arises as a result of the play's subject matter.

Although the premise is strong, the show doesn't live up to its comic potential, and it grows tiresome even before the first act is over. The music, composed by Robert J. Saferstein, is serviceable but never rises above the pedestrian. However, Gil Varod's often clever lyrics partly compensate, especially in the songs "A Little Complex" and "What Is It Like When Ya Get the Plague?"

The primary problem is the show's book, by Kimberly Patterson and Varod. While the actual staging of Oedipus is quite funny, the backstage scenes slow the momentum. The Fuzzy Duck company members -- named after the real-life actors playing the roles, Gavin Lewis, Reed Prescott, and Laura "Catalina" Jordan -- are so flatly written (and broadly performed) that it is difficult to muster any interest in them. Patterson and Varod, abetted by director Dan Fields, spend so much time commenting upon what a bad idea it is to stage the Oedipus story for children that they undercut the material's subversive potential.

On the plus side, one of the script's more ingenious devices is the inclusion of "quack backs" during which the Fuzzy Duck company interrupts the action for discussions of the play's themes with the audience. Quite hilariously, these sessions tend to reveal inappropriate information about the actors instead.

-- D.B.