Once upon a time, the musical comedy Western was a heavily populated subgenre of theater. At this point in history, Golden Age shows like Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun have earned their spots in the textbooks, though other titles like Paint Your Wagon have largely been relegated to the stage of New York City Center Encores! for museum-piece concert productions. This very particular type of show died out toward the end of the 1960s, when the form moved past prairie settings, quaint romantic storylines, and twangy, folksy melodies.
Every now and then, a new one will rear its head, its motives often falling into the categories of parody and homage. But surprisingly, the York Theatre Company's world premiere production of David Friedman and Peter Kellogg's musical Desperate Measures manages to defy all expectations one may have going in. It's neither parody nor homage. It's a full-on reclamation of the musical comedy Western, and one that uses an unlikely source material: the bleak Shakespearean problem play Measure for Measure.
Like many of its categorical predecessors, Desperate Measures has a relatively simple plot. Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) is in prison awaiting the hangman after killing someone in a saloon brawl. He persuades his sister Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), a novice nun, to ask the evil Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) to spare his life. But he'll do that only if she promises to spend the night with him.
And that, of course, leads to a musicalized version of the Shakespearean "bed trick." Susanna, teaming up with Sherriff Martin Green (Peter Saide), attempts to fool the Governor into thinking he slept with her, when he really did the deed with Bella Rose (Lauren Molina), a saloon stripper who happens to be Johnny's old flame. Chaos ensues.
Friedman has crafted a score that harks back to the old days, filled with cheerful melodies that will very likely get stuck in your head. David Hancock Turner's orchestrations, utilizing instruments like the mandolin and banjo, add to the old-time Wild West vibe that the production cultivates so well. Kellogg provides clever, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a script that is written almost entirely in iambic pentameter (an impressively ambitious device, even if more than a few lines sprinkled throughout don't adhere to the syllable count and throw off the textual rhythms).
As this is a comedy that needs to move quickly, director and choreographer Bill Castellino keeps his production barreling at a fast (but not abrasively so) clip. More importantly, his crackerjack cast of musical-theater vets, which is completed by Gary Marachek as a drunken priest, performs this delicious buffoonery with infectious glee (the sweet-voiced Degerstedt and Molina, who steals every scene she's in, perform an uproarious Lucy and Harpo-style pas de deux near the end). The plentiful sight gags in James Morgan's set earn just as many laughs as the actors do.
Desperate Measures doesn't reinvent the wheel, but all told, it is a production of infinite jest and most excellent fancy. As Shakespeare might say, Ye haw.
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