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STAGE REVIEWS : ‘Utopia’ Is Indeed ‘Limited,’ but It’s a Start

Nowhere has W. S. Gilbert so completely unleashed his parodist claws as in “Utopia, Limited,” an unjustly neglected Gilbert and Sullivan operetta now being exuberantly revived by the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company through next weekend.

The operetta was indefinitely shelved after its opening in 1893 when it failed to enjoy the success of “Mikado.” This Southern California premiere raises the question of whether the lack of appreciation was because of its artistic flaws--it admittedly lacks shaping and polish--or because it hit too close to home for its late-19th-Century English audience.

For “Utopia, Limited” does nothing less than attack the chauvinism England exported with its colonial efforts, by presenting a happy country, as perfect as Utopia, that becomes spoiled by its aspiration to be just like England.

It is the equivalent of portraying the United States moving into a Third World country and trying to “civilize” it with fast-food chains and disposable soda bottles, a touchy and appropriate issue for an election year.

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Like the bulky opera itself, this revival has serious flaws, none of which fatally impair the production’s lush pleasures.

The adaptation, by director Welton Jones, the theater critic for the San Diego Union, and actor George Weinberg-Harter is the main culprit.

Jones and Weinberg-Harter framed the operetta with a story of Gilbert writing the libretto, rather in the fashion of Jules Verne writing “Around the World in 80 Days” in the new La Jolla Playhouse musical, “80 Days.”

The parallels are so close that one fully expects the piano to start following Gilbert around as the writing desk does Verne.

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But, unlike “80 Days,” which used the framing story to show the painful, anxious route of Verne’s creative journey, Gilbert’s story outside the story offers no insight into the work itself.

Instead of showing the gritty, real-life drama of the fights behind the scenes among Sullivan, Gilbert and Richard D’Oyly Carte, all of whom hated each other by the time the public demand for this collaboration came about, we have a cocky Gilbert positing a story in which he plays the happy king of Utopia and Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte are the nefarious wise men trying to prevent his alliance with England.

It’s an odd choice: If Gilbert imagined the story, would he not have made Sullivan the ignorant king who gives up Utopia for a match with respectability? That was one of the reasons Sullivan quarreled so bitterly with Gilbert: He wanted to write grand operas--which he failed at--and saw D’Oyly Carte and Gilbert as bringing him down from the heights to write the operettas, which, ironically, outlasted his “serious” work to secure his place in musical history.

The show is on firmer ground when it is back in Gilbert’s hands.

Jones moves his large, potentially unwieldy cast of more than 15 principals with ease through the ins and outs of J. Sherwood Montgomery’s cleverly painted sets, keeping his finger firmly on the comic pulse.

There is an under-rehearsed feel to the whole; the singing is not yet in complete alignment with the music, skillfully conducted by Hollace Koman, or the words completely at one with the notes.

But Harter and Michael Darcy sparkle in a solid cast as the comedy team of D’Oyly Carte/Scaphio and Sullivan/Phantis. Joseph Grienenberger counterpoints delightfully as the confident Gilbert and the hapless king. Tracy Van Fleet captures the ramrod-straight gait of a dragon lady as the king’s love interest and Gilbert’s lecturing wife.

Kelley Evans-O’Connor brings flawless timing to her delivery as Princess Zara and Gilbert’s protegee, Nancy McIntosh. Sadly, she is the only one shortchanged by Cindy J. Cetinske’s otherwise lovely costumes. (The transitional sarong/tuxedo combinations of the evolving Utopians are a particular delight.) As the ingenue, could Evans-O’Connor not have been dressed up a bit more flatteringly than in washed-out browns and peach?

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The pleasing Rankin Fischer would prove a happier choice as the princess’ love interest, Captain Fitzbattleaxe, in the first act were he allowed to take his helmet off so we could see his face.

Larry Anhorn’s choreography is breezy overall, with touches of sweetness in the short ballet sequences, and the lighting design by Chris Harshfield is surprisingly subtle for the Casa del Prado Theatre.

It all adds up to a “Utopia, Limited” that may not be the ultimate revival, but should prove a useful bridge to many more.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m., through Sunday at the Casa del Prado Theatre.

There are moments of sheer lyricism in a monologue of “wild coast,” a new play in which a young white South African girl describes how her desire to become a flight attendant evolved out of an early yearning to see her dead mother’s face in the clouds.

It is curiously more moving than the polemics that are, presumably, playwright Carol Kaplan’s reasons for writing the work in the first place: racism in the Transkei, an independent African homeland recognized by the government of the Republic of South Africa.

Now playing at San Diego State University’s Don Powell Theatre through Saturday, “wild coast” takes two couples, one white and one mixed, who meet at a camping site.

By the time these four finish their long day’s journey into night, the men and women have re-examined their roles and their relationships, and one is left alone, near death, lying on Nick Reid’s magnificent desert set that fully suggests the lonely enormity of being abandoned in a physical and moral wilderness.

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It is an ending that underscores the problems with the script; it is so punitive, it makes you feel sorry for and angry with the wrong people. Nicely directed by Peter Larlham, it’s a skillful show that pulses with potential beneath the histrionics.

Ultimately, however, the production--well acted by San Diego State actors Kimber Riddle, Dorrie Board, Sean O’Shea and John Brooks (the women are particularly fine), well-lighted by Craig Wolf and impeccably outfitted by Gaslamp Quarter Theatre regular Dianne Holly, should be of largest service to the playwright as a workshop example of just where the play needs to be adjusted on the drawing board.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Saturday at the Don Powell Theatre at San Diego State University.


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