Robber barons, financial greed, venality, hanky-panky or downright dishonesty in high places. Sound familiar? All was endemic in England and in the U.S at the end of the 19th century. In the U.S. the situation blew up with the stock market crash in 1929, despite the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt to rein in the worst of the excesses. In England, W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan shone a spotlight on them in their second to last comedic collaboration, “Utopia, Limited.” (“Ltd.” is the word after an English corporate name which corresponds to the U.S. “Inc.”)
Always timely, Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society presents “Utopia, Limited” as its annual production this month, and it opened at the Bagley Wright Theatre Friday night.
The plot is as silly as always.
An island king is under the thumb of two officially wise men who are intent on feathering their own nests, threatening him with annihilation by dynamite if he doesn’t do their bidding. The king, chafing, has sent his oldest daughter to study at Cambridge University in England to learn how England, the model of perfect governance in his eyes, achieves its aims.
When she returns she brings a team of experts who decide to transform the island systems into a corporation, foiling the wise men. They are so successful the island falls into depression, with jails empty and lawyers out of work because there’s no crime, banks failing because no one is liable and doctors starving because no one is ill. Under the wise men, the island people revolt, but the princess suddenly remembers the last piece of the English puzzle which will set all right again: a wrangling political party system.
To be frank, this is not one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best efforts. There’s less coherence in the flow particularly in the second half, and some of the libretto is more padding than the wit we expect. But the music is vintage Sullivan, and Gilbert’s pointed comments on the financial system hit home as freshly today as almost 120 years ago—even more so where Seattle G & S has tweaked words (but not meaning) to today’s financial buzz. Bail-out instead of winding-up, same thing, different phrase. Madoff rather than Rothschild, a dig at subprime loans and more.
The production is as polished and imaginative as we have come to expect from Seattle G & S. Sets (by Nathan Rodda), costumes (Carl Bronsdon) and stage direction (Christine Goff) are excellent, from the opening scene—a South sea island beach resort complete with languid girls lounging with flowers in their hair and drinks with little umbrellas—to five English lifeguards with plumed helmets, scarlet tunics, and shining brass breastplates, and even a seaplane of Pan Utopia Air flying across the stage and landing, stewardess and all. Attention to every detail for every performer from the chorus up shows in this lively, colorful production.
Again, as always, Seattle G & S has come up with classic G & S voices. Carla Hilderbrand’s rich mezzo is perfect for Lady Sophy, the middle-aged dragon some version of whom appears in all the operettas. Seattle G & S’s pattersong expert with the dry baritone, Dave Ross, has been promoted, last year to the Mikado, this year to the King, but, joy of joys, Seattle has found another of these rare birds. John Brookes, last year’s Koko in”The Mikado” is here the financial advisor, Mr. Goldbury, and as inimitable an exponent of these roles as Ross.
Utopia’s heroine, Princess Zara, has more character than many of Gilbert’s heroines. After all, she is university trained and decisive, and Jennifer Elise Hauge, making her Seattle G & S debut, handles the role with aplomb and a bright soprano voice. The comic antics of the two wise men (Scott Bessho and William J. Darkow) and the Public Exploder (Rob Martin) are some of the best moments in “Utopia,” particularly their neatly executed choreography by Marie Chong.
The pit orchestra played with verve and good pacing, and the well-trained chorus sang with a will under music director Bernard Kwiram.
Words, even well-articulated in English, can be hard to hear. For this less familiar G & S production, supertitles would have been an asset.
Stage director Goff sang Zara the last time Seattle G & S performed this operetta, in 1991. A trained singer, she’s also a banker who for the past decade has been working in the world of high finance, surely a rare background for a stage director but perfect for this show. Not only that, she has recently been laid off, and is now looking for her next career. Anyone out there need a talented stage director and singer who also happens to have today’s banking experience?
The show continues through July 25 at the Bagley Wright Theatre. Tickets $12-$32. Five family nights with reduced ticket prices. 206-341-9612 or http://www.pattersong.org.