How did W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan do it? Did they know that their work would speak as clearly of the conditions of today as it did when they wrote it in the 19th century? They were creative geniuses, undeniably, but maybe their prescience really is more about human predictability. The faults and foibles that Gilbert and Sullivan satirized in their day — hubris, vanity, greed, the cult of celebrity — we’ve still got them . . . and then some. Luckily, our ability to laugh at ourselves, which the theatrical duo also celebrated, remains as well.
In Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress, Gilbert and Sullivan skewer imperialism, capitalism and a host of other human inventions. Its main characters could easily fit in amongst today’s headliners. The operetta, with libretto by Gilbert and music by Sullivan, is the latest offering from the Ventura Country Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company, produced by John Pillsbury with director Rebecca Pillsbury at the helm.
Utopia, Limited is set on a tiny island in the South Pacific, where the bounty is plentiful and the people are happy. The same cannot be said for their ruler, the affable yet ineffectual King Paramount (John Pillsbury). The king is under the influence of Scaphio and Phantis (Marc Goldstein and Paul Carpenter), the kingdom’s Supreme Court judges, who trick him into doing all sorts of ridiculous things, like writing self-deprecating tabloid pieces under a pseudonym. Then there is Tarara (Daniel Krause), the Public Exploder, whose function seems to be standing at the ready to blow up the king in case he rebels.
The three men have a good thing going until the king’s eldest daughter, Princess Zara (Laura S. J. Barrows), returns from England after studying the ways of the British Empire. She is accompanied by the “Flowers of Progress,” English gentlemen of high esteem (Thomas Hall, Anthony Moresi, Susanna Mills, John Rohm and Reid Ripley), who have grand ideas for how to improve Utopia — including making each person a limited liability company. One of the gentlemen is Captain Fitzbattleaxe (Cameron Liljekvist), Princess Zara’s true love. Meanwhile, the king pines for Lady Sophy (Emma Jani Redman Hall), the prim English governess charged with molding the mischievous young Princesses Nekaya and Kalyba (Emilie Joy Lethcoe and Rosa Beltran) into proper Victorian ladies.
Gilbert and Sullivan are the real mischief makers here, as they take aim at political quirks and imperialistic notions. In the end, however, love conquers all.
The production’s highlights include the Flowers of Progress’ tamborine-tapping rendition of “Society Has Quite Forsaken.” Standouts in the cast include the very funny Hall and Goldstein, who are a delight to watch. Others include Barrows, Liljekvist, Redman Hall, Lethcoe, Beltran and Moresi. Rounding out the endearing ensemble are Sabrina Boggs, Sydney Bowers, Jim Bukowski, Janice Dallas, Samantha Green and Natalie Taylor.
The production is accompanied by a live orchestra, directed by Zach Spencer and including Art Gibson, Jeremy Benner, Donna Accardo, Paola Aquilar, Mike Munson and Rhondda Dayton.
Creating a world that transitions between island paradise and Victorian parlor are set director/designer, artist and builder Jeremy Hanes, scenic artist Amanda Benjamin, set builders Ron Dallas and Kent Bower, light designer Jim Didderich, light tech Lee Schaub-Green and sound designer John Pillsbury. Erin Heulitt dresses the cast in island garb and Victorian finery, while the enjoyable dance numbers are choreographed by Becky Masseth Castells.
During these chilly last days of winter, the sunny setting and musical mischief of Utopia, Limited make the production a playful way to welcome in spring, VC theater-style.
Utopia, Limited or The Flowers of Progress runs through March 24 at Theatre on the Hill, Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For tickets and more information, call 805-381-2747 or visit hillcrestarts.com.