"Utopia" Comical, but Musically Limited

The decision of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players to bring “Utopia, Limited; or, The Flowers of Progress” to the stage came at a time of renewed significance for the opera in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Directed by C. E. Chiemeka Ezie ’15, a Crimson Arts editor, “Utopia” is one of the final comic operas written by William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The show, which played in the Agassiz Theatre until Sunday, served as a reminder of the farcical aspects of economic success. With this motivation, the Players delivered a charming performance, sometimes marred musically but ultimately buoyed by convincing acting and successful communication of satire.

At first, the Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ performance seemed inconsistent in character, almost disjointed and confusing because some of the characters were played melodramatically while others remained mostly subdued. The opera opened by juxtaposing the female chorus (Bethany A. Harris ’13, Civry P. Melvin ’14, and Catalina Gaglioti, a student at the Boston Conservatory) with the Public Exploder, Tarara (Jack F. Weyen ’16). The chorus, which represented various residents of Utopia, seemed lackluster in comparison to the outlandishly exuberant Tarara, who, with his overwhelmingly slapstick manner, was distractingly singular in volume, action, and ridiculousness.

However, this polarized range of characters quickly became the opera’s greatest strength as the characters began to take on carefully constructed roles and personalities. The strong and mostly humorous performances of minor characters, such as that of the suitor (Ryan M. Rossner ’13) and Lady Dramaleigh (Gaglioti), were often the details that prevented the opera from flagging during the occasionally uninteresting plot. When the suitor fruitlessly charmed Princess Zara (Jillian Rossi, a student at the Boston Conservatory) in “Bold-faced ranger,” his amiable performance, although wordless and short-lived, made his character immediately likable. Similarly genial was Captain Fitzbattleaxe (Christian N. Føhrby ’14), whose winning smile and boyish love for Princess Zara turned him into a familiar, almost too-perfect protagonist. The most well-played characters were the mischievous and scheming Wise Men, Scaphio (Eli E. Kahn ’13) and Phantis (J.T. T. Menchaca ’15). The two actors brought life to the predictable role of the villainous and incompetent duo, quickly becoming the most developed and multifaceted characters in the opera. Kahn particularly did justice to the role of Scaphio, developing his personality through his hilarious confession of love for Princess Zara while maintaining a sinister, power-hungry air throughout the opera.

Unfortunately, the successful acting was sometimes negatively overwhelmed by the pit orchestra, which struggled to play synchronously with the singers or even with itself. Ultimately, the orchestra was too small and under-rehearsed to take advantage of Sullivan’s more intricate compositional moments. Besides problematic intonation and ensemble, the orchestra’s performance created a disjointedness between the pit and the stage; instead of complementing the actors’ performances, the music tended to distract or drag it down. This disorder was most obvious in “Words of love too loudly spoken,” a love song between Princess Zara and Captain Fitzbattleaxe that nearly fell apart when the pit lagged behind the singers’ lines.

Despite the shortcomings of the orchestra, many of the opera’s shining moments occurred during the musical numbers. In “First you’re born,” King Paramount (Brad A. Latilla-Campbell ’16) was impressive not for his vocal performance but for his portrayal of character—his declaration of “Ha! Ha! Ha!” was played down tastefully by his uncertain gaze and demeanor, suggesting that King Paramount was ultimately unconvinced by Scaphio and Phantis’s defense of Utopia’s newspaper. In “Society has quite forsaken,” King Paramount and the representatives from England, collectively called the Flowers of Progress (Gaglioti, Rossner, Føhrby, and Joseph S. C. Goodknight, a graduate student at SEAS) enthusiastically perform a sardonic dance routine that included jazz fingers and a line dance. The biting commentary was boldly and effectively extended with an additional verse contributed by producer Ethan T. Addicott ’14. Instead of reusing the lyrical structure of the previous stanzas, Addicott’s addition brought a feeling of immediacy to the song with the line, “In short, we think your country should be Anglicized completely!”

The success of “Utopia, Limited” ultimately rested on the Players’ ability to translate and package the satire of Gilbert and Sullivan’s original work. Ezie’s decision to reinvent Utopia as a fictional country in the sky rather than a fictional South Pacific island appropriately directed the commentary of “Utopia, Limited” away from imperialism and towards economics. Ezie also omitted the characters for which the opera was initially criticized—including Captain Corcoran and Mikado of Japan, both references to earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operas—a decision that further focused the opera’s theme. The Players’ rendition of this satire maintained the charming atmosphere of a traditional Gilbert and Sullivan performance through their convincing portrayals of characters while remaining immediately relevant.

—Staff writer Se-Ho B. Kim can be reached at sehokim@college.harvard.edu.

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