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Theater Review (NYC): Gilbert & Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited

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When the venerable New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players bust out Utopia, Limited, it’s usually for just one performance in a season that may include a handful of Pinafores or multiple Mikados. Utopia, after all, is neither the most popular nor (admittedly) the best G&S comic opera. It’s certainly far from the best known, and before last night’s performance at Peter Norton Symphony Space I had never seen it.

It may well be, however, the most appropriate for our times.

First produced in 1893, this late effort viciously lampoons some of the more newfangled forms capitalism had taken in Great Britain during the 1900s. It satirizes limited liability companies (which by declaring bankruptcy, or “winding up,” could be absolved of their debts), as well as the idea that companies could be legally treated the same as “persons.” (Gilbert would have a shock of deja vu were he here to observe the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.)

But, though shot through with almost grating cynicism, the show has many delights, and these were displayed amply by NYGASP in a spirited if slightly unpolished production. Perhaps because there was only one performance, with (I imagine) relatively scant rehearsal time, the chorus was on book and the mostly fine orchestra delivered a few sour notes—unlike in more perfected NYGASP productions I’ve seen at the more opulent City Center. But these things really mattered little.

First off, I was simply glad to experience a G&S story I’d never seen staged before. The story is typically absurd. The residents of the fictional Pacific island of Utopia live in a “lazy langour,” ruled by benevolent monarch King Paramount (played with broad, rubbery humor by the clear-voiced baritone David Wannen). However, two judges (the blissfully funny Stephen Quint and Stephen O’Brien) operate the king from behind the scenes for their own gain, aided by threats of doom from the “Public Exploder” (James Mills).

As British governess Lady Sophy (the graceful alto Erika Person) “finishes” the king’s younger daughters to within an inch of their lives, his eldest, Princess Zara (Laurelyn Watson Chase), returns from several years in Britain with the gallant Captain Fitzbattleaxe (the sweet-voiced tenor Cameron Smith) on her arm and a quintet of gentleman known as the Flowers of Progress—a Lord Chamberlain, a barrister, a comptroller, and so on—imported to bring Britain’s “civilized” ways to the backwards islanders, who proceed to take things a little too far.

Booming hilarity and biting cynicism ensue hand in hand. So does some great music. Mr. Goldbury’s song, which closes Act I with an explanation of the economics of the LLC, is a showstopper in the hands of Richard Alan Holmes, who, the program informs me, is in his 30th season with the company. “Make the moneyspinner spin / For you only stand to win / And you’ll never with dishonesty be twitted, / For nobody can know / To a million or so / To what extent your capital’s committed.” (Credit default swaps, anyone?)

After the intermission, the duet “Words of Love Too Loudly Spoken” (also known as “Sweet and Low”) proves the more effective through the gently persuasive delivery of Ms. Chase and Mr. Smith. Ms. Chase, in particular, lights up the stage whenever she’s on it. Another highlight is Ms. Person’s lovely, bittersweet “When But a Maid.” Gilbert & Sullivan’s ability to fit touching love songs into stories of cutthroat satire was never more apparent than in these numbers.

A variety of other cast members had fine individual turns, and the chorus sounded glorious. This performance may have been a one-shot, but NYGASP is not a company to skimp on quality voices even so. David Auxier provided the appropriately flouncy choreography, while NYGASP founder Albert Bergeret directed the show and conducted the orchestra with wit, feeling, and abundantly obvious love for the classic G&S canon he has preserved and nurtured for 40 years. This season’s G&S Fest continues with a Dec. 5 performance of The Yeoman of the Guard. Visit the company website for schedule and ticket information.

Photo Credit: William Reynolds.  1. L to R: Stephen Quint as Scaphio, Laurelyn Watson Chase as Princess Zara, and David Wannen as King Paramount.  2. L to R: Stephen Quint & Stephen O’Brien as Scaphio and Phantis. 

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.