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Desperate Measures Moves Uptown, but Its Sexual Politics Don't Work Anymore

After a hit run at the York, this musical send-up of Measure for Measure is running at New World Stages.

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Desperate Measures, 2018 Drama Desk winner for music and lyrics, is set to open June 13 at New World Stages.
(© Carol Rosegg)

When last we met Desperate Measures, David Friedman and Peter Kellogg's Wild West musical reimagining of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, it was at the charmingly disheveled York Theatre in the Citicorp Building last fall. The show was an unexpected treat; a little too long, but void-filling: a smart, genuinely funny show presented at a time when genuinely funny musicals were hard to come by.

In the ensuing months, Desperate Measures extended and extended again, won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway musical, and took home a pair of Drama Desks for its music and lyrics, beating out all of its Broadway competition. Now running at New World Stages, where the set and performances are just a little larger, Desperate Measures is still very enjoyable, even if the material no longer feels comfortable in light of recent world events.

Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) is sentenced to hang after defending the honor of his girlfriend, the saloon dancer Bella Rose (Lauren Molina), against a dastardly villain. There's only one way to get the egomaniacal Governor Otto von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) to let him go: Johnny's novitiate sister Susanna (Sarah Parnicky) must join the governor in bed for one romantic evening. With the help of the handsome Sheriff Green (Peter Saide), they hatch a plan: Susanna will arrive at the governor's mansion, and when the lights start to dim, Bella Rose, donning the same nun's habit, will take her place in bed.

Desperate Measures first opened at the beginning of last October, just days before bombshell exposés about sexual abuse in the entertainment industry shifted the cultural landscape. Like its Shakespearean source material, this musical centers itself on the notion of sexual blackmail; but unlike Measure for Measure, it does away with the discussions of morality that give the centuries-old play its depth.

As a result, Desperate Measures feels skeevier than it did seven months ago. Friedman's melodies are still jolly earworms; Kellogg's book, written in rhyming couplets, is still a smart distillation of the original source material. But in light of the current world climate, it has become extremely difficult to look past its surface-level plot: a man's life will be spared only if two powerless women willingly agree to satisfy the sexual desires of a corrupt, powerful man. And they happily go along with it in the service of musical comedy, getting nothing in return besides marriage.

Bill Castellino's production still has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, and the performances remain delicious crackerjacks. It's impossible not to find enjoyment in the rubber-limbed dimness of Ryan's Johnny, the overbearing pompousness of Wyman, the beautiful voices of Saide and Parnacky, Molina's daffy facial expressions, and Gary Marachek's antics as a drunken, Nietzsche-obsessed priest. But in light of all that's gone on over the past half-year, it's a bummer that Castellino, the writers, and the four female above-the-title producers haven't reconsidered certain elements — or even chosen to add a little bit of depth to the proceedings.

Many people won't wring their hands desperately about it; they'll be quite content to simply enjoy the show's madcap hilarity. In the end, I would have preferred a much more measured evening.

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