Imagine a happy population indolent and colorfully clad, in a sort of South Seas paradise. Then imagine a constitutional "despotism tempered by dynamite" -- which is to say, if the king doesn't govern agreeably, two judges are authorized to blow him up.
You might well call this a utopia, as do author and lyricist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan in their 1893 comic operetta, "Utopia Limited" -- limited, however, twice over, because what society trusts its own happiness? So King Paramount sends his daughters to study what they assume is the true utopia: Victorian England. The result is a scheme to make the kingdom limited in another way, as "Utopia Ltd.," or as we'd say, "Inc."
It's a delicious, topsy-turvy view of the limits of privatization, and it comes from an essentially conservative point of view.
In performance, it's a milestone, the first time "Utopia Limited" has been staged in Pittsburgh, in this, the 75th season (a year longer than any other opera company in town) of the Pittsburgh Savoyards, our indefatigable local tenders of the G&S flame.
But before turning to the reasons for this long neglect, we should celebrate the fortuitous appearance of this comic operetta of 1893 beside Oscar Wilde's verbally comic masterpiece of 1895, "The Importance of Being Earnest." With G&S in Andrew Carnegie's lovely little musical hall in Carnegie and, thanks to Prime Stage Theatre, Wilde's "trivial comedy for serious people" in the New Hazlett on the North Side, we have a rich opportunity to double-dip in late Victorian comic satire, where the barbs are thoroughly swathed in lace and whipped cream.
There are differences, of course, as the fates of the authors suggest: Gilbert & Sullivan were honored and made rich (and Sullivan turned into a conservative mossback in his final years), while Wilde was hounded to an early grave by a hypocritical puritanism.
Wilde was no doubt the greater artist. But Gilbert & Sullivan have given more joy to more people, and it is a pleasure to welcome at last the least known of their 14 operettas.
Why has "Utopia" never achieved the wild popularity of "Pinafore," "The Pirates of Penzance" or "The Mikado" or even "Iolanthe" (my favorite)? Start with the size of the production: Here, a cast of 44 and an orchestra of 28 or more. The show is long, just under three hours. And it's complex, with more plots than it needs.
But the Savoyards, a stable amateur company with some performers of professional quality, has the resources to pull it off.
The G&S sense of eccentric pomposity starts with the theater curtain, a portrait of Andy's imposing Skibo Castle in Scotland -- and you remember he started out a bobbin boy in a mill but grew richer than any duke in the land, a story that might as well have appeared in G&S.
Granted, some of the targets of amused imitation are lost on us, today: the blackface Christy Minstrels, for example, and the royal "Drawing Room," a social ritual we could get only a distant idea of from the court scenes in "Downton Abbey" a few weeks back.
And there is some difficulty in making the choral lyrics clear, which is a shame, because Gilbert is a very witty lyricist, his words often cutting across the expectations of the music or situation. Normally that doesn't matter, because G&S fans come with the lyrics in their memory or scripts on their laps. But "Utopia Limited" is pretty new to both longtime fans and novices. I went home and read the text (if you don't have a one-volume G&S in your home, you should), with the music still in my head.
The best performance is that of Leon Zionts, an imperturbable King. Vocal honors go to Kaitlyn Very as Princess Zara and Marybeth Sederburg as Lady Sophy, but they are nearly matched by others. Some roles are double cast, evidence of how many people help keep G&S alive and well. These certainly include director/choreographer Robert Hockenberry and especially music director Guy Russo, in his 16th season with the Savoyards.
Thanks go to the whole company for giving many of us a chance to complete our G&S scorecards while musing on the continual follies of governance.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.