In Peter Kellogg and David Friedman’s musical, Desperate Measures, a West Coast premiere playing through February 12 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, a Shakespeare “problem play” (Measure for Measure) is converted into a tuneful farce that perhaps has more in common with Molière than with its purported source. Even so, what better way is there to chase away winter doldrums than with a musical romp?
The relationship to Measure for Measure draws from a subplot of the play: Duke Vincentio of Vienna decides to get a better understanding of his realm. He does so by disguising himself as an ordinary citizen and leaving his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo driven by religious fervor, immediately begins to rule with an iron fist, Angelo targets sexual behavior, and he has soon arrested Claudio for having sex with a woman to whom he is not married. Claudio’s sister, a novice nun named Isabella, is persuaded to intervene on her brother’s behalf with Angelo, who, in turn, offers a deal: if Claudia gives him her virginity, he will free Claudio.
Angelo agrees, but Isabella’s friends decide to pull a trick on him: Isabella insists that she must have sex with him under conditions of total darkness, and when the time comes, a woman who has been betrothed to Angelo but whose dowry was lost at sea, disguises herself as Isabella and has sex with Angelo in her place.
At this point, the plots of Measure for Measure and that of Desperate Measures diverge and probably for good reason: it would be difficult to portray the next trick pulled on Angelo and include bouncy, easily hummable, songs.
Here’s where the plot becomes more like Molière: Isabella’s tormenter becomes more like one of Molière’s stock characters, and the remainder of the play turns into a farce instead of a critique of a trusted servant who betrays his trust.
Now, reset the play into the American Wild West, add songs, stir, and farce comes easily. Our hero is named Johnny Blood (Michael Louis Cusimano), and Isabella’s character is named Susanna, aka Sister Mary Jo (Jo Garcia-Reger). Angelo becomes the territorial governor (Rusty Ferracane). Instead of the switch being done by a betrothed woman who gets justice in the process, the task of sleeping with the governor falls to a prostitute named Bella Rose (Samantha Duval). It’s a credit to Elisa Benzoni’s costumes and Peter Herman’s hair and wig design that these two women look remarkably alike when dressed to fool the governor.
There are a couple of other characters included here who don’t have counterparts in Shakespeare. One is a drunken padre (Rudy Martinez), who spends much of Act 1 in jail but who also manages to fulfill priestly duties in a pinch. The other is the town sheriff (Elijah Rock), whose big, legit, basso-profundo voice conveys authority but also has some difficulty blending with the voices of the musical comedy types.
North Coast has apparently decided that in-person theatre is far superior to recorded theatre, so as long as the pandemic protocols work, they are likely to be proved correct. Director Christopher Williams is also the casting director for the company, and his good work shows in the quality of the performances. Several of the creative team are North Coast regulars: musicals always present challenges in this small theatre space, but Marty Burnett has managed to get a four-piece band, led by musical director Craig Bohmler, on stage, as well as a traveling jail set that is much fun to watch. Matt Novotny’s lighting design manages to keep all of the stage elements in perspective, and Aaron Rumley’s sound and projection design do the same. There’s not a lot of room left for choreography, but Jill Gorrie Rovatsos cleverly fits it in.
Outsmarting a pompous governor is always a crowd-pleaser, whether it’s Shakespeare, Molière, or Peter Kellogg and David Friedman.
Next up: Pinter, another North Coast Repertory specialty. Or to quote the late, great Stephen Sondheim’s song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “A matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler’s.”
I’ll drink to that!
Performs Wed. @ 7pm, Thurs-Sat @ 8PM; Sat & Sun @ 2PM, Sun @ 7pm. Wednesday Matinee @ 2pm, February 2, 2022 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA 92075. Ample free parking is available close to the theatre. Audience members must be masked and present proof of vaccination to be admitted. There is one intermission, and the run time is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes.