“These are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett, and desperate measures are
So says Sweeney Todd to his soon-to-be-partner-in-culinary-crime.
The times we’re now living in may or may not be desperate
depending on your point-of-view, but there’s no question that in
these days of musical theater, DESPERATE MEASURES is called for.
Not “are” called for, but “is” called for, because DESPERATE
MEASURES is the name of a new fun-filled musical comedy. It will
chase away your troubles for at least a couple of hours if you drop in
to see Bill Castellino’s fine production that’s now playing at New
World Stages on West 50th Street.
Chances are, though, even those who get to see the hit will want to
be entertained by Peter Kellogg’s lyrics and David Friedman’s music
for more than that 150-minute running time. They, as well as those
far from New York, can enjoy the score from the new original off-
Broadway cast album.
Full disclosure: I loved the show so much and said so in my review of
its break-in engagement at the York Theatre Company
shakespeare/ ) that album producer Robert Sher asked me to write a
piece for the CD booklet.
But even if Sher had fired me after he’d read four words of my essay,
I’d still be endorsing this terrific musical.
Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE may not seem to be the
ideal inspiration for a rollicking, country musical. The Bard’s 1603
problem play (and, oh, does it have problems!) deals with justice or
the lack thereof, political corruption, outright religious hypocrisy and
sexual harassment. Shakespeare started out by establishing that young Claudio impregnated Juliet before they took their marriage vows – which they had honestly planned to do. Now the oh-so-
devout Judge Angelo plans to put Claudio to death and make an
example of him so that would-be fornicators will, to quote a lyric
from OVER HERE!, “keep their money in their pants.”
This harsh sentence horrifies Isabella, who’s a sister to Claudio and a
nun-to-be. Isabella asks Angelo to pardon Claudio; the monarch says
he will if she’ll have sex with him. The Judge is no more remotely
embarrassed by his outrageous behavior than Judge Turpin is in
What a conundrum for poor Isabella. And we thought that Princess
Barbara had it rough in “The Lady or the Tiger?” sequence of THE
APPLE TREE when she had to choose between having her
condemned lover marry another woman or be put to death.
By the time Shakespeare got around to writing this play, he’d used
the device of mistaken-identity more than a half-dozen times. Did he
dare go to that well one more time? You bet he did; he soon had a
lass named Mariana pinch-hitting for Isabella in Angelo’s bed.
Friedman has a natively Golden Age Broadway sound; if you know his
marvelous comedy song “My Simple Christmas Wish” – a/k/a “I Want
to Be Rich, Famous and Powerful” — you’ll understand. Now with
DESPERATE MEASURES, he proves he’s capable of moving from
Manhattan to the mesas of Arizona, where he and Kellogg (who also
wrote the book — and put it in rhyming couplets, no less), moved
their musical in place as well as time: the late 1800s. He’s added a
Western taste to his music that’s as flavorful as Tex-Mex. Luckily the
theater in which DESPERATE MEASURES is currently playing is
underground, for if it were on street level, it might sink into the
ground from all the toe-tapping – nay, FOOT-tapping – that the
music inspires patrons to do.
As for the story, Claudio is now Johnny Blood, who killed in self-
defense. That cuts not a sliver of ice with the law-and-order
Governor of Arizona.
By choosing the Grand Canyon State, do you think that the writers
had Sheriff Joe Arpaio in mind? If so, they certainly have disguised
him well, for they’ve named him Governor von
Considering the aggrandized view the Gov has of himself, we’re
surprised to hear him sing “They will capture me” — until we realize
that we haven’t heard the entire line: “in bronze,” he concludes.
Isabella is now called Sister Mary Jo, although Kellogg has made her
a novice as unsigned as Maria Kutschera was before she met the von
Trapps. Sheriff Green is so taken with her that he’s glad she hasn’t
taken her vows. So he’s almost as happy as Sister Mary Jo that Bella
Rose, the local saloon girl, entertainer and – well, let’s keep it clean
and leave it at that – will be taking her place in the Gov’s boudoir.
The best joke of the night comes after Bella is told that to be
convincing she’ll have to dress as a nun – to which she blithely says
that such a guise won’t be a problem, because in her line of part-
time work, she’s occasionally called on to wear such an outfit to
please certain customers.
What’s amazing is that Shakespeare didn’t think of the romantic
entanglement that Kellogg did: Johnny loves Bella, who once swore
that she’d give up her casual occupation for him. So he doesn’t want
her doing it with the Governor. That leads to a fine Kellogg lyric for
Johnny: “All this saving my life is killing me.” Conor Ryan knows how
to deliver it with the precise amount of moaning that will get us to
As Sister Mary Jo, Emma Degerstedt proves that virtue needn’t be
spineless. Nick Wyman amuses as the imperious Governor with a
German accent as thick Berlin Potato Soup. More than one critic,
having seen Peter Saide as Sheriff Green, has predicted that stardom
isn’t far away. As Bella, Lauren Molina shows why she was nominated
as Best Featured Actress by the nominating committees of both the
Outer Critics Circle and the Lucille Lortel Awards.
And while we’re on the subject of prizes, the 2017-18 season saw the
former organization deem DESPERATE MEASURES its Outstanding
New off-Broadway Musical while the latter’s voters chose Peter
Kellogg as Outstanding Lyricist and David Friedman as Outstanding
Composer – on OR off-Broadway.
How nice that so many appreciated the words and musical measures
in DESPERATE MEASURES.