North Coast Rep planning Shakespeare-inspired Wild West musical comedy

The cast of North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Desperate Measures" pose for a photo
The cast of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Desperate Measures,” from left: Rusty Ferracane, Elijah Rock, Jo Garcia-Reger, Michael Louis Cusimano, Samantha Duval and Rudy Martinez.
(Aaron Rumley)

The award-winning musical ‘Desperate Measures’ is performed entirely in rhyming verse, but with modern language


William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” has long been known as a “problem play” for its dark cynicism and abrupt shifts in tone. So Christopher Williams said he understands why audiences may be confused by “Desperate Measures,” a wacky musical comedy inspired by the Shakespeare drama that opens Saturday, Jan. 15 in its West Coast premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

Corruption, execution, sexual depravity and rape figure into the Bard’s bleak “Measure for Measure,” which is set in 1604 Vienna. David Friedman and Peter Kellogg’s “Desperate Measures” is a comedy musical set in Arizona in the late 1800s. What they have in common, Williams said, is some of the same characters and situations, and the script and score of “Desperate Measures” is written entirely in Shakespeare’s own style of meter and rhyming couplets, though in contemporary rather than Elizabethan language.

Williams, who is associate artistic director of North Coast Rep and is directing “Desperate Measures,” said audience members shouldn’t be intimidated by the musical’s Shakespearean origins.

North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Desperate Measures"
Rusty Ferracane, left, Elijah Rock and Jo Garcia-Reger in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Desperate Measures.”
(Aaron Rumley)

“People don’t have to know Shakespeare or ‘Measure for Measure,’ and they don’t have to understand iambic pentameter to enjoy it,” Williams said. “What the creators did was take just the bones and structure of ‘Measure for Measure’ and they camped it up and sent it to Wild West Arizona. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, where people can just sit back and relax and forget about what’s happening in the world today.”

“Desperate Measures” made its world premiere in Texas in 2004. Then in 2012, the script was rewritten in rhyming verse for a production in Connecticut. The musical made its off Broadway premiere in 2017 at York Theater, an off Broadway house in Midtown Manhattan that specializes in new musicals. That production led to the musical winning the 2018 Drama Desk awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics as well as the 2018 Outer Critics Circle and Off-Broadway Alliance awards for Best Musical.

Williams had never heard of “Desperate Measures” before a friend sent him an email about the show a few years back, and he researched it online through the musical’s website, the cast album and YouTube videos. The size of the show — six actors and a four-member saloon-style Western band — was right for the North Coast Rep space and the show was unique.

“I was surprised that it hadn’t had more productions,” Williams said. “These guys are so clever and smart with what they’ve done.”

As in “Measure for Measure,” a young man facing execution appeals to the town sheriff and his sister, a nun, to appeal to the governor for clemency, but the governor will only make the deal in exchange for sexual favors from the sister. Eventually, the siblings win the upper hand and all ends happily. Williams said the play begins in Shakespearean style with a prologue that sets the scene and many of the characters’ monologues and songs are told in direct address to the audience.

The biggest hurdle to watching Shakespeare plays is understanding the Bard’s 17th century language, but Williams — who taught Shakespeare acting and text analysis for many years — said there’s no challenge for actors and audiences with “Desperate Measures.”

“It’s been so easy to dive right in,” he said. “There’s no need to look up all the words and figure out their modern context. It’s contemporary language that just happens to be in meter and rhyming. The actors picked it up immediately.”

The production’s cast members are all entirely new to the North Coast Rep mainstage: Michael Louis Cusimano, Rusty Ferracane, Elijah Rock, Samantha Duval, Jo Garcia-Reger and Rudy Martinez. The show’s musical director is Craig Bohmler and Jill Gorrie Rovatsos is choreographer.

“Desperate Measures”

When: Opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 12. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Plus 2 p.m. Jan. 14 and Feb. 2.

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Tickets: $57-$68

Phone: (858) 481-1055