Spirit of Broadway's DESPERATE MEASURES an OK musical at the OK Corral
I’m not exactly sure if this is ever happened to me before at a musical. I was sitting at the Spirit of Broadway in downtown Norwich, a theatre dedicated to new and new-ish musicals. I was enjoying the show, but kept thinking, “This would be so much better if it wasn’t a musical.” Usually at a musical, you cannot wait for the next song, unless the songs are so lousy that you cannot wait for intermission. This is the first time (at least in recent memory) where I could not wait for the singing to stop and the talking to begin.
Desperate Measures is most assuredly not lousy, but the book by Peter Kellogg is head and shoulders above the music and lyrics. Based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and written entirely in rhyming verse, the script is very smart and very funny. Set in the semi-Wild West, the play finds Johnny Blood locked up in the local prison for shooting a man. He has been sentenced to hang for his crime, but the sensitive sheriff goes to Johnny’s sister, a novice nun named Susanna, and asks her to intercede with the Governor on her brother’s behalf.
As in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, clothing gets swapped, identities get confused, and true love finds its way. The book manages to have it both ways with snappy repartee tinged with a Western twang. The songs, however, are a seriously mixed bag.
The tune that opens the show, “Johnny Blood,” is drab and gives no sense of the humor or wit to come. The second song, “How It Is” sung by the Sheriff, is fairly middling and banal. About midway through the first act, some decent tunes matching the smarts of the script start to appear. The second act songs overall are stronger than the first, but at this point the winning script has already worked its magic.
Part of the problem of the music lies in the orchestration for the small ensemble. The score by David Friedman does not adhere much to a Western sound, although it does make a few, small concessions to the saloon sound of the late-1800s (the period when the show is set). Musically, the ballads have a sameness, while some upbeat numbers distinguish themselves.
As with the music, the casting has its highs and lows. As the jailbird Johnny Blood, Michael Sullivan is miscast in physicality and temperament. He is supposed to be a hot-blooded roustabout and a troublemaker. This does not register in Sullivan’s performance. Corrado Alicata as the Sheriff is fairly one-note and just misses capturing the sly, intelligent man hiding behind the facade of a local yokel. Perhaps part of the problem is he is simply too young for the part.
There are standout performances to be found with Aline O’Connor as the novice nun seriously conflicted with the need to compromise her chastity. Her simple, straightforward performance is lovely, affecting and filled with tart humor. The yin to the nun’s yang, the town whore Bella, is portrayed with sassy insouciance by Shauna Goldgood, who is particularly exceptional in the comic timing department. Johnny Marion, in a mostly non-musical role of a drunken priest, shows exceptional facility for verse.
Director Brett Bernardini has organized a mostly-solid production. The set by Mike Billings has the right saloon feel. The costumes, designed by Bernardini, are period appropriate (although the climactic duel-wedding scene really requires that both women wear the exact same gown, an odd misstep here). The lighting by Greg Solomon is on the money, except for the Act 1 finale “In the Dark,” where the lights get brighter and brighter. Ummmm, they are singing about being in the dark. Am I missing something?
Quibbles about Desperate Measures aside, what Bernardini’s choice in show has illuminated is that he is a capable director of straight, non-musical comedy. With tight budgets and a wonderfully intimate space, he may want to consider doing a play now and then. As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.