WINTER PARK — Stories about people being asked to pretend they’re someone else offer a high degree of comedic potential if they’re done right, and I have to hand it to the creators of the Off-Broadway musical Desperate Measures: the idea of a “saloon girl” (yes, it means more than just serving drinks to the cowpokes) taking over the identity of a local nun is pretty creative, and they pull it off quite nicely.
This play about the efforts of a local sheriff and nun to save a man from the gallows is ingeniously funny at times, and the production now at The Winter Park Playhouse benefits in particular from the casting of Hannah Laird as the prim and proper nun Susanna, who nevertheless understands it’s going to take some street smarts and skulduggery to save her brother from his scheduled hanging; and Michelle Knight as Bella Rose, the saloon girl who is love with Susanna’s brother Johnny and has no problem using her sex appeal to help save him. As these two very unlikely characters get together to plot a way to save Johnny, the two actresses couldn’t have been more ideally cast.
What’s the Musical Desperate Measures About?
Desperate Measures was created by Peter Kellogg (book and lyrics) and David Friedman (score), and became an Off-Broadway hit, winning the 2018 Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. A satirical update of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (complete with Shakespeare-style rhyming couplets) the play is set in Arizona in the late 1800s. The musical tells the story of Johnny Blood, a dim-bulb cowboy who gets arrested and sentenced to death by hanging for a shooting that may actually have been self-defense. At least that’s what Sheriff Green thinks, so he tries to convince the governor to grant him clemency. The governor, though, is corrupt and won’t do anything unless there’s something in it for him, so the sheriff tries a different tact: recruiting Johnny’s strong-willed sister Susanna — who is a Sister in another way — to appeal to the governor to spare Johnny’s life.
As a self-centered and cold-hearted guy, the governor isn’t much interested in emotional appeals, even from a woman of God. But … and this is a biggie …. he does think Susanna is awfully cute, so he makes her a crude offer: he’ll let Johnny go if she sleeps with him. So what’s a nun to do?
How about recruit the local lady of the evening, who has plenty of experience seducing men, to toss on a nun’s habit and pretend to be Susanna? That sure won’t be easy, but it’s definitely a great joy watching them give it the old college try.
How Is The Winter Park Playhouse Production of Desperate Measures?
Since closing Off-Broadway last fall, Desperate Measures is getting its national premiere at the Playhouse now through Oct. 13. This often very silly farce is given exquisite comedic timing by director Roy Alan, who knows how to keep up the pace for a seemingly non-stop number of belly laughs.
The actors certainly help; James Channing is ideal as the crafty Sheriff Green, whether he’s looking for ways of tricking the governor or coping with his love interest in Susanna. Clay Cartland plays dumb dumb Johnny to comedic perfection, and one of the play’s funniest moments has Sheriff Green hoping Johnny will escape from his prison cell … but he has a hard time getting Johnny to take the hint that the keys to his cell are within his reach.
Alexander Mrazek, as the very sex-obsessed governor (complete with thick German accent) and Glenn Gover as a priest with a passion for booze, round out the ideal cast, and they’re all great fun. But I most enjoyed watching Laird and Knight in their scenes together trying to trick the governor. The three of them are priceless in those side-splitting moments.
How Can I See This See This at The Winter Park Playhouse?
Performances of Desperate Measures are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30, Thursday and Saturday matinee performances at 2 p.m. and select Friday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Ticket prices are $45 for evening shows, $42 for senior evening shows, $36 for matinees, and $20 for student and theatrical industry professionals. Student rush “$10@10” offers $10 tickets (for students 25 years and younger) 10 minutes prior to a performance when seats are available.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.