"Desperate Measures" a Musical Yes, "The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord" a Long-Winded No

It’s up to the novitiate. It’s up to her just days before her becoming a nun called Sister Mary Jo. In the musical Desperate Measures, should Susannah (Emma Degerstedt) save trouble-making brother Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) from the hangman’s noose by sleeping with lecherous Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman)?

William Shakespeare cognoscenti will instantly recognize the problematic storyline about endangered chastity from the David Friedman-Peter Kellogg work at the York Theatre as having been liberally lifted (Kellogg’s the bookwriter) from that hoary old “problem play” Measure for Measure. On the other hand, patrons with Bard lapses won’t have to wonder about its origin. The program lets them know.

Whether or not familiar with the tuner’s predecessor, audiences will quickly realize they’re at a truly entertaining show brimming with a good score, with a strong six-person cast, with a clever barn of a James Morgan set replete with amusing signs announcing locales in the 19th-century Western town and with nifty Nicole Wee costumes. They’ll fast take to the overall package wrapped and tied with a bow by director-choreographer Bill Castellino.

Kellogg purloins just enough Shakespeare—all dialogue is in iambic pentameter couplets—to keep matters hopping. Johnny is jailed with only a day or so to go for extremely reluctant sister to agree to the Governor’s demand before the gallows beckons.

With the help of Sheriff Martin Green (Peter Saide), who’s developing a longing for the soon-to-be-Sister, Susannah agrees to a plan whereby saloon performer-sometime hooker Bella Rose (Lauren Molina) will sneakily substitute in the Governor’s much-discussed bed. For her part, Bella is madly in love with Johnny, and vice versa, and all of the above crowd are joined from time to time by a dipsomaniac cleric and an obliging bartender, both of whom Gary Marachek plays with all stops pulled out.

The action gallops along (no live horses, but at least one cardboard version) through two acts with the actors happily mugging their way in full-throated splendor. The script gives them abundant opportunities to grab focus. Now it’s silken Degerstedt holding the spotlight, now the comical Ryan, now the bawdy Molina, now the staunch Saide, now the leering Wyman, now tippling Marachek.

They’re each persuasive at delivering the melodic Friedman (composer)-Kellogg (lyrics) ditties as they pop up with appealing regularity. As to those contributions, there’s no question they perk up proceedings throughout. Most of them are so melodically pleasing and lyrically clever that it sometimes seems as if Friedman and Kellogg could have developed them even further. Currently, most are sung one time through, and that’s it.

Only with the funny “Just For You” duet that Bella Rose and Johnny sing at, and with, each other do the tunesmiths wring as much delight as they might from what they’ve wrought. No quarrel, though, with the orchestrations by David Hancock Turner and his conducting of them.

If a cranky spectator or two were to point out a few odd Desperate Measures lapses, they might comment that Susannah’s devotion to her faith is flimsier than Shakespeare’s Isabella’s. Truth to tell, she impresses as even less devout than the problem like Maria from The Sound of Music, who also leaves her order for more earthly romantic doings.

Another quibble: When Johnny learns that Bella Rose has, as part of the extended ruse, been with the Governor (again, as it happens), he’s outraged. Why isn’t he upset about all the other men she’s bedded by her own boastful admission? He knows her past. Why the sudden jealous prudery?

Okay, never mind all that. The wryly-titled Desperate Measures is too much of an enjoyable time to pick at it for minor infractions. And the lively piece brings us a likable team, whose Money Talks earlier this year wasn’t nearly as rewarding. Welcome, you two.

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Just after a projection warning “Don’t Close the Door” vanishes, Thomas Jefferson (Michael Lawrence, looking much like portraits of the founding father he’s playing) enters set designer Wilson Chin’s anti-septic room and closes the door. Then he examines its contents—a metal table and two metal chairs—to no revealed enlightenment.

Jefferson is only the first to arrive of the three figures mentioned in the mouthful title of Scott Carter’s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, the Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane. The founding, floundering father is quickly followed by a 40-ish Dickens (Duane Boutté) and a late-in-life, peasant-garbed Tolstoy (Thom Sesma), both of whom close the door too soon to realize their tactical mistake.

Now the three famous figures plucked from different times and places—as Steve Allen did in his Meeting of Minds television series—and stuck in this version of Purgatory get to talk to each other. Perhaps in the context “talk” is too vacant a word. These three, wary of each other at first and for some long minutes afterward, argue hotly with one another.

They’re so contentious that they’re almost immediately alienating to each other as well as the ticket buyers. Worse, their conversation shortly becomes pointless. No, that’s wrong. Only for a while does what they’re mooting test spectator patience. Carter eventually does get around to a point with the three.

Late in the intermissionless 85-minute gabfest, something pithy emerges. Each of the bickerers faces the fourth wall, which has been identified as a mirror, and admits to his sins. When Jefferson looks at his reflection (and is, of course, addressing the audience), he fesses up to being a slave owner. Dickens owns up to being a rotten husband and father.

So Carter is insisting that—wait for this fresh surprise!—humankind is flawed, but that doesn’t preclude each of us from making important contributions to the greater population.

Under Kimberly Senior’s steady direction, the actors do well at the incessant volatility. Jefferson and Count Leo connect with familiar visions we have of them. Dickens doesn’t. Dressed to the mid-19th-century nines, he comes across as quite unlike the Dickens we know. That Dickens, born in poverty but raised above his early station (thanks to his brilliantly teeming novels) became a gentleman. He didn’t turn into the upper-class twit Boutté is asked to present. Talk about discord!

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