Utopia, Limited is not generally considered among the best of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, but you would not guess that from the Durham Savoyards’ sparkling production, on stage at Durham’s Carolina Theatre for two more performances. Although written in 1893, it is deliciously topical today, with its themes of cultural imperialism and capitalist malfeasance and hilarious send-ups of power politicking. Oh, and of course, there’s love.
Set on a South Seas Island, run by a despotic king kept under control by a pair of wise men and a Public Exploder, the drama begins as Princess Zara returns from five years in England, where she was educated at Girton College, Cambridge. Her mission: to Anglicize the island. In service of this misguided ambition, she has brought with her six “Flowers of Progress,” six men who symbolize the various powers of England. Except for the island wise men, whose roles are usurped, the populace is all for emulating that great country — until the law of unintended consequences makes its full force felt. This sly dig at women’s education might get under your skin, but Gilbert takes any number of digs and pot shots in this hilarious libretto. He’s an equal opportunity offender, and has King Paramount repeatedly remind us that there’s a humorous side to everything. (For an exhaustive exposition on Utopia, Limited, click here.)
That King, Jim Burnette, was delightfully absurd on the 27th, and in good voice. He and Alana Sealy as Lady Sophy, were extremely enjoyable together, with Sealy nearly stealing the show with her beauteous smile and strict propriety, not to mention her gold lamé gown. Even better in the singing were Kathleen Jasinskas and Mitchener Howell as Princess Zara and Captain Fitzbattleaxe. The other princesses, the alleged Flowers of Progress and the assorted maidens, guards and choruses all sang well, but some of the greatest pleasure came from from Stuart Albert and Steve Dobbins as the wise men Scaphio and Phantis, along with Chris Newlon as the Public Exploder. They were highly kinetic, while singing boldly and enunciating clearly, and very comic. All the singers were well supported by the Durham Savoy Orchestra in the pit, conducted by Alan Riley Jones, who knows his Sullivan and the needs of singers. There were occasional sound balance problems when the orchestra overpowered the singers, but mostly the musicians kept their exuberance in check, and the hanging microphones over the stage ensured that most lyrics were audible.
Director and choreographer Derrick Ivey (also responsible for the charming set) keeps the show lively, with brisk timing and constant motion — pairs and groups dance throughout, with repeated stylized sequences that get funnier and funnier. He’s also used motion and rigidity to contrast the Islanders and the English. But he’s also amped up the acting, beyond what an operetta usually includes. Of course, there are innumerable arch looks and other standard G & S tropes, but the sincerity of the actor/singers in their roles makes the songs even more piquant.
This country, and probably the world, is dotted with groups of ardent Gilbert and Sullivan fans. Durham’s own Savoyards have been staging G&S operettas since 1963. Each year a large number of people take a few months and make a huge effort to fully stage one show, which runs for a long weekend only. It is the best kind of community art making, fueled by passion and executed with skill. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss them throw off the slimy shackles of dystopian privatization and limited liability in this delightful Utopia, a show that gains an extra frisson of pleasure by its proximity to the gilded proscenium and red plush curtain of the right-sized Carolina Theatre.
For information about additional performances, see the sidebar..