2012-03-15 / Dining & Entertainment

Company presents rarely performed Gilbert & Sullivan opera

Play review
By Cary Ginell

Joe Mancuso Joe Mancuso This month, Gilbert and Sullivan fans are getting an especially rare treat, as the Ventura County Gilbert & Sullivan Repertoire Company presents one of the pair’s most infrequently performed operas, “Utopia Limited,” at the Theatre on the Hill in Thousand Oaks.

Premiered in 1893, the show came at a time of great acrimony between the two composers, who had been quarreling over the cost of a carpet used at London’s Savoy Theater. The rift was so great that flaws in the opera resulted from the composers’ tenuous working relationship.

The plot concerns a mythical barbaric island called Utopia, ruled by King Paramount, whose reign is subjugated by Scaphio and Phantis, two “wise men” who are more concerned with their own seamy side businesses than the welfare of Utopia’s subjects. These rapscallions are abetted by Tarara, the Public Exploder, who will blow up the king at the hint of any indiscretions.

Sara Messina Sara Messina The unseemly trio’s plans are thwarted when the king’s governess, who has been tutoring the royal daughters in gentility and proper English manners, arrives with a coterie of six members of the British ruling class (“The Flowers of Progress”), who proceed to domesticate the island by declaring each individual a corporation and instituting the ways of English life.

The story has many flaws and loose ends in Act 1 that are never really resolved in Act 2, during which the usual romantic inclinations by the major characters are jettisoned as the plot shifts to focus on the island’s political transformation.

The show makes passing references to two previous G&S hits, “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” with one of the arriving noblemen actually called Captain Corcoran (introduced to the tune of “My Gallant Crew, Good Morning,” using new lyrics).

Joe Mancuso is masterful as King Paramount, who is forced to ghostwrite scandalous items about himself in “The Palace Peeper,” a Utopian version of the National Enquirer.

Gary Saxer and John Pillsbury play Scaphio and Phantis, respectively, who find their power over the king diminishing with the arrival of the erstwhile cabinet. The trigger-happy Tarara is deliciously played by David Gilchrist, who gives his character an aura of giddy insanity.

The requisite stuffy authority figure, a hallmark of G&S operas, is a female in this case, the governess Lady Sophy (Tamarah Ashton-Coombs). The governess attempts to make proper ladies out of the king’s tittering younger daughters, Kalyba (Sara Messina) and Nekaya (Stephanie Klimek) who exhibit fine singing voices.

Jeff Berg is Captain Fitzbattleax who has fallen for the king’s older daughter Princess Zara (Elizabeth Harmetz). Berg’s pleasing tenor and Harmetz’s soprano are only two of the universally excellent singing voices displayed by the cast.

Most of the musical highlights occur in Act II. The delightful “Society has quite forsaken” is sung by the six cabinet officers as they stoically bang on tambourines during their patter chorus.

The most effective song in the show is a patriotic madrigal, “Eagle high on cloudland soaring,” beautifully sung with a melody as moving as anything Sullivan ever composed.

The show is yet another sharply delivered satire on Victorian-era Britain that rings relevant more than a century later.

“Utopia Limited” plays at the Theatre on the Hill through April 1. For tickets, visit www.vcgsrc.org or call (805) 491-6103

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