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'Desperate Measures' review: Western send-up of Shakespeare delivers laughs at The Dio

Photo courtesy of The Dio/Richard Rupp


Desperate times call for “Desperate Measures.”

Which, in the case of the show called “Desperate Measures” that is playing at The Dio, means a rollicking, wild wild west hoedown that repurposes William Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure” into a raunchy musical comedy in the vein of “Blazing Saddles.” That can be a tough sell for most theaters, but most theaters aren’t The Dio, who are taking a pretty substantial risk mounting a show few people have probably heard about. Written by David Friedman and Peter Kellogg, “Desperate Measures” has a script that takes a few scenes to find its rhythm (the entire show, for example, is spoken in Iambic Pentameter or rhyming couplets) though once the cast, under the direction of Steve DeBruyne, get over those minor rough patches, this rowdy production will leave you howling for more.

Hard to believe Shakespeare could write something subpar, but “Measure for Measure” is often regarded by scholars as one of his “problem plays” in the way it deals with morality and its awkward tonal shifts. Friedman and Kellogg have embraced that mentality by turning the show on its heels and crafting a slew of catchy tunes and one-liners. Hell, from the beginning, a character tells the audience this isn’t a show about morality, and they have “fixed up the words” to make it more approachable while also promising a scandalous evening of sex, music, and indecent affairs!

Set in the wild west, the opening number introduces us to notorious outlaw Johnny Blood (James Fischer - who shares a resemblance with the late Gene Wilder) who is set to be hanged after killing a fella in a drunken brawl after they insulted his saloon entertainer/girlfriend, Bella (Dara Pardon). Lucky for Johnny, he’s got the Sheriff (DeBruyne - pulling double duties) on his side and arranges for his sister, Susanna (Monica Spencer), who is about to enter into a convent, to try and ask Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Michael Bessom) for a pardon. But the only way he’ll agree to the demands is if Susanna gives up her chastity for him. How’s that for a little divine intervention?

What ensues is controlled chaos as Susanna can’t bring herself to break the vow and enlists the help of Bella, who is, let’s just say, “equipped” in the art of seducing men. The plan is simple: when the lights go out at night, Bella will disguise herself in a habit for the one-night-stand and rock the Governor's world enough to where he’ll grant Johnny Blood clemency. But Bella’s “techniques” prove too effective, and the Governor wakes up the next morning looking to make Susanna his wife.

It’s all done in jest with DeBruyne’s production operating at laugh-out-loud efficiency. Pardon, in particular, is an absolute wrecking ball on The Dio stage, plowing through several physical (and intimate) moments with a big, sassy attitude and incredible vocals; Likewise for Dan Morrison who is doing amazing character work playing the morbid Father Morse, a drunken Irish priest with no real purpose of being in the show other than to provide comedic fodder. Still, his supporting performance was indeed a scene stealer.

Bessom is having a great time playing the kooky (and creepy) Governor where the only thing missing was him twirling a mustache. Fischer, who Dio audiences will remember as Mark from “Rent,” spins memorable yarn (and hits some hilarious deadpan stares) out of Johnny Blood (love that name!) Especially during his soulful tune “It’s Good To Be Alive.” Elsewhere, DeBruyne and Spencer have remarkable chemistry as it becomes clear the two characters are developing feelings for each other as the show progresses. They also find themselves in the unenviable position of playing the action straight while the madness unfolds around them.

Under the musical direction of Daniel Bachelis, the entire company is top notch, as exemplified during the Act 1 closer “In The Dark” where the harmonies couldn’t sound more in sync. And, in a rarity for The Dio, DeBruyne has implemented a four piece orchestra to help bring the music to life and it’s a refreshing change of pace from canned audio tracks. As usual, Matt Tomich finds ways of evolving The Dio stage to meet the needs of the show while Norma Polk’s costume design flourishes. You’ll never forget the silk pajamas the Governor is wearing during his late night rendezvous with Bella.

While “Desperate Measure” is filled with plenty of double entendres and innuendos, it’s also got an underlying sweetness, especially as the romance between the Sheriff and Susanna blossoms, that’s hard to resist. One wishes the script had dug its claws into the obvious social commentary aspects of westerns (like the stereotypical roles women usually play in these shows), but the cast elevates the material. If you’re looking for a hilarious night of musical theater tomfoolery, The Dio and “Desperate Measures” have you covered. Of course, the ticket includes a three course dinner, and the dessert this time around was a scrumptious blueberry pie that melts right in your mouth.

Like the show, it’s easy to digest and extremely savory.

The Dio’s production of DESPERATE MEASURES continues through Sep 24th. Reservations, which include a full dinner and non alcoholic beverage, can be purchased here.


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