Review: DESPERATE MEASURES at Armonk Players

A Western Musical Comedy by way of Wild Will Shakespeare

By: Jun. 12, 2024
Review: DESPERATE MEASURES at Armonk Players
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[Pictured: Michelle Foard and Steve Taylor. Photo by Sam Rudy]

We’ve all been let down when expectations are high
And leave the experience with a disappointed sigh
But what about the opposite, when we know not what to expect
And tie a bow on the show with hearty applause of respect

That’s what happened to me at the musical Desperate Measures
A winning musical produced by The Armonk Players
It has a rip-roaring cast and comedy galore
When it comes to a fun time, who could ask for more?

One of the several surprises I encountered as Desperate Measures got underway with a bang at North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theater in Armonk, N.Y. is that the dialogue is all rhyming couplets. If that brings to mind the prolific punslinger Wild Will Shakespeare, it should, because the premise of this Western-themed show is based on his play Measure for Measure. (The Armonk production is through June 15; armonkplayers.org). 

The book for Desperate MeasuresI, by Peter Kellog, is refreshingly elemental: The Bard’s setting of early 1600s Vienna is now the late 1800s Wild West in the  pre-statehood Arizona Territory, where Johnny Blood (played by Anthony Malchar) is due to be hanged for killing a man, though it was in self-defense. 

Johnny can be set free, however, if his sister Susanna (Michelle Foard), who is Sister Mary Jo in the religious order of Our Lady of the Tumbleweed, will sleep with lecherous state Governor Otto Von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Steve Taylor). Add sympathetic Sheriff Green (Robert Agis), tipsy priest Father Morse (Tom Ammirato), and blowsy saloon singer Bella Rose (Annie Fitzgerald), and in short order all heck breaks loose. It’s no spoiler to say that this musical comedy ends with justice for all, but not before inevitable complications deliver the requisite waves of laughter. 

The simple plot serves as an effectively functional framework for the charm and the casual cleverness of Mr. Kellogg’s breezy and polished wordsmithing, whether sung or spoken. This show lassos you right from the get-go as you happily hitch up for the hayride. 

Set to David Friedman’s versatile score, accented with a Western twang (honky tonk keyboard and strings at the fore), Mr. Kellogg’s snappy and ingenious lyrics are matched by his easy-on-the-ears couplets. Together they buoy the storyline and the audience’s enjoyment immeasurably. 

He’s given each of the performers rich musical material with which to ham it up, and they oblige. The six exuberant actors – excellent across the board – make the most of their center stage opportunities to belt or tug at heart strings or tap into the broad yet sophisticated humor that flows from the quill of Mr. Kellogg. I couldn’t count any laugh lines that didn’t land. 

Bella and Johnny’s duet “Just for You” reminded me of “All Er Nothin’” from Oklahoma. The irrepressible Annie Fitzgerald would make a natural Ado Annie. Anthony Malchar is a bloody good Johnny Blood, contorting his body at times to hilarious effect and mugging with delight in “It’s Good to Be Alive.” 

As evidenced in the introspective “What Is This Feeling,” Michelle Foard is blessed with a heavenly voice  – and exhibits seasoned comic timing to boot. 

With a commanding stage presence, Steve Taylor sinks his teeth into the pompous and goofy Governor with gusto, as when he basks in the morning after, singing “What a Night.” He had me thinking of bumbling Colonel Schultz in classic 1960s TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. 

Versatile Tom Ammirato always brings sharp characterization to his roles, and his finely-tuned turn as inebriated Father Morse is a comedic acting lesson in less is more. 

Anchoring it all as the steady, sensible Sheriff, Robert Agis makes a suave and game straight man, putting his strong voice to effective use on the prairie-flavored ballad “That’s Just How It Is.” 

It's easy to see how the original off-Broadway run of Desperate Measures in 2017 won a wagonful of awards.

This production, under the tightly disciplined guidance of director Pia Haas, is a wonder and a model of how much can be achieved through the economy of scale. Ms. Haas (who I’ve worked with several times) is a highly skilled pro at extracting entertainment value in every beat of a show, with nary a wasted moment or movement and a constant emphasis on energy levels, which keeps the audience captivated and invested throughout. Desperate Measures exemplifies her production values in that respect, as well as in others.

The spare sets that distinguish scenes – a desk, a bed, a saloon bar – do the trick and the set changes are pulled off quickly and seamlessly. The scale applies too to the smartly executed backdrops. The customary flats are designed as stained-glass windows and prairie cactus, and are both serviceable and adequately atmospheric. A movable prop that plays the role of a Western jail cell’s door and bars is another example of the resourceful stagecraft for which Pia Haas is known.  

The estimable four-person orchestra, which sounds fuller than its number would suggest, features Conductor Will Rich on keyboard, Adam Austerlitz on double bass, Mel Passler on violin/mandolin, Peter Hunter on guitar/banjo. 

Abundant credit too goes to Choreographer Jill Paganelli (especially the opening number), Costumer Colleen Ammirato (wonderfully colorful and stylish threads on all), Technical Director (and Sound Effects) Daniel Scherer, Stage Manager Laura Groven, Assistant Director Jess Reed, Lighting Designer Anthony Santora, Scenie Designer and Set Decorator Anthony Valbiro, Producer Sam Rudy, Casting and Co-Producer Anthony Malchar. And, of course, what’s any show without Property Masters (Props) like Vivien Cord and Phyllis Sederbaum. 

So saddle up and ride on down to Desperate Measures, yee-haw!




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