Saturday, July 18, 2009

Play: Despotism Tempered By Dynamite

Utopia, Limited. Music by Arthur Sullivan, Libretto by W.S. Gilbert, performed by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Bagley Wright Theater, through 25 July.

Interesting day - a lovely brunch with the Lovely Bride and the Sacnoths, then up to the Seattle Center, where the Bite of Seattle has little draw for a man with a full stomach (but the music was nice and most Seattle is in better shape than I). Walked into a newly re-located bookstore (Abraxus on 1st Avenue), found a used copy of The Works of Gilbert and Sullivan, read on the lawn during a cooking demonstration of grasshoppers, then attended the performance.

Now, Utopia, Limited is considered one of the "lesser works" of the G&S canon, coming towards the end of their partnership, and indeed, everything pretty much wraps up plot-wise in the first act. The South Sea Island of Utopia is a tropical paradise with a severe case of Anglophilia, desiring to be like the greatest country in the world, Great Britain (which sometimes includes Ireland). To that end the King has a prim British governess for his younger daughters and has sent the eldest princess off to England to absorb as much Englishness as possible.

Everyone is happy on the island except the King (a clean-shaven Dave Ross), who rules only by the permission of his two Wise Men, who in turn can direct the Chief Exploder to blow up the King if his majesty errs. Such is the usual nature of the Gilbertian universe. As a result of this state of affairs, the King is at the beck and call of his wise men, who taunt him by making the King write pieces satirizing himself for the local paper (and if you ask what is a newspaper press is doing on a tropical island, just back away from the review now).

The returning daughter, Princess Zara, brings along the "Flowers of Progress" - representatives of the best of British Society. They revolutionize the island, in part by introducing the idea of the Limited Liability Corporation. The king embraces this idea, since you cannot blow up a corporation like you could blow up a person. End of Act One.

Act Two is ... there. Its a cleans things up a bit. The two Wise Men and the Chief Exploder try to ignite a revolution based on shaky ground (everything is TOO good). The King and the governess get together. The Princess and the leader of the royal guard get together Another romantic subplot vanishes without a trace. The two young girls get together with two of the ministers (which is a bit squicky when you think about the ages involved, so just don't). The revolution is foiled, and Sullivan provides the punchline of what Britain has to keep things from getting TOO perfect. Curtain.

You should see this for the same reason you should attend a good performance of King John (one of Shakespeare's weakest numbers). Utopia, Limited is backed by strong voices, good acting and excellent timing. Jennifer Elise Hauge has a powerful, beautiful voice that transcends the material. Dave Ross is the pompous put-upon monarch, by turns fool and wise man. William Darkow and Scott Bessho are the comic-opera villains (and I suppose someone has done their masters on the inherent toothlessness of G&S bad guys), and are delightful. John Brookes delivers the best explanation of an LLC that I have ever heard. And the tambourine-armed opening number in Act II , I must admit, is completely jaw-dropping (and pretty much salvages the rest of the act).

Everyone here is rising to equal or better the material. The sets are straightforward and nicely done, and the costumes (particularly once they Anglicize the island) are beautiful. And yes, they muck about with the libretto a bit, dropping Madoff in for Rothchild and mentioning the 787's outsourcing woes. This production is more than worth seeing, if only to break from the Mikado/Penzance/Pinafore troika that dominates G&S Lore.

So, three hours well spent, and a recommendation, on the strength of the performances. Worth seeing.