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Theatre in Review: Desperate Measures (New World Stages)

Lauren Molina, Gary Marachek. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Last season's sleeper musical has transferred from York Theatre Company to New World Stages in fine fettle, with most of its original cast and all of its laughs intact. It's hard to believe anyone ever picked up Measure for Measure and saw it as the basis for a Wild West comedy musical -- and, in truth, librettist Peter Kellogg has only borrowed a few plot devices from the original; in any case, he uses them to spin a wild and woolly frontier farce, leavened by plenty of tuneful and lively numbers.

The scheming starts when hapless outlaw Johnny Blood is arrested for murder, in what was really an act of self-defense. Sentenced to hang, he is desperate for a grant of clemency, but territorial Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber ("the long name of the law") is a man without mercy. (Exactly why a former member of the Prussian Army has been engaged for this position is something you'll have to take on faith; his task, as he sees it, is to "make Arizona great again.") Sympathetic Sheriff Martin Green tracks down Johnny's sister, Susanna -- aka Sister Mary Jo, a Franciscan novice -- enlisting her to make a Hail Mary plea to the governor. She succeeds all too well; inflamed with lust, he tells her that he'll save Johnny -- if she'll occupy his bed for a single night. And we're off, as Martin concocts a plan to swap out Susanna, on the edge of perdition, with Bella Rose, the saloon floozy who got Johnny into trouble in the first place. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

After a slowish start that sets up the situation, Desperate Measures expertly mixes high and low comedy, with Martin and Susanna bickering in classic fashion as Bella and Johnny mop up with material that is pure vaudeville -- even as the action tumbles toward a climax featuring a wedding complete with one groom and two heavily veiled brides. (Kellogg's dialogue is neatly rendered in rhymed couplets.) As Martin, Peter Saide expertly throws away lines for big laughs, and he enjoys a delightful chemistry with Sarah Parnicky's Susanna, a pious plaster Madonna who crumbles by degrees under the sheriff's attentions. Their growing mutual affection applies the dab of reality that keeps us engaged in the plot's increasingly elaborate permutations.

In contrast, Lauren Molina's Bella is a striptease queen with a rubber face and a vocal twang that ricochets around the room: She steams up the proceedings in a little something titled "It's Getting Hot in Here," complete with a cactus-themed undergarment that covers in all the right places. (Told that the plot involves sleeping with the governor, she snaps her head in the direction of the audience, and, assuming a sour-pickle expression, snaps, "Again?") As Johnny, Conor Ryan is a 19th-century stock company all by himself, forever throwing himself into one exaggerated emotional pose after another; he is especially good when slyly trying to coax Susanna into surrendering her virtue or battling it out with Bella over her chosen profession. Amazingly, neither performer ever goes overboard; surely the direction of Bill Castellino played a key role in the light touch maintained throughout. Nick Wyman snacks on the scenery amusingly as the governor, and Gary Marachek adds to the fun as the whiskey priest who writes fan letters to Friedrich Nietzsche.

The score -- lyrics by Kellogg, country-flavored music by David Friedman -- combines attractive ballads, including "Stop There," in which Martin fights his feelings for Susanna, with raucous toe-tappers like "Just for You," in which Bella and Johnny list the crimes they've committed for love, and "It's a Beautiful Day for a Lifelong Commitment," the show's delightfully cracked version of Guys and Dolls' "Marry the Man Today."

Everything else contributes to the breezy atmosphere, including James Morgan's big-barn set, adorned with location-setting signs ("Justice sleeps here" for the governor's bedroom); Nicole Wee's costumes (especially Bella's on- and off-duty garments); Paul Miller's bright, festive lighting; and Julian Evans' sound design, which earns laughs of its own from instances of errant gunplay. (David Hancock Turner's orchestrations allow for a touch of Ennio Morricone-style melodrama now and then.)

It might seem a strange thing to say about a musical filled with outlaws, harlots, faithless clergy, and sexual shenanigans, but the show's hallmark is its good taste. (Just imagine: An audience laughing at a show about sexual harassment and a power-made politician -- in 2018.) By taking the premise at face value and playing it for all it's worth -- but without belaboring it in the slightest -- everyone involved has achieved exactly the kind of breezy, beguiling entertainment that should be on tap at all times, especially as summer beckons. If you see Desperate Measures, you can be pretty sure you'll leave the theatre grinning from ear to ear. -- David Barbour

(13 June 2018)

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