‘Utopia, Limited’ at New York’s El Museo del Barrio, Tonight

by John O'Sullivan

Following Roger Kimball’s advice and example here, I went last night to the Blue Hill Troupe’s production “Utopia, Limited” at the theater of El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan. I’m an old Gilbert and Sullivan fan — one of those people whose lips irritatingly move in unison with the words of the patter songs — but they didn’t move on this occasion because, like Roger, I had never seen “Utopia, Limited” before. My impression was that it is very rarely performed. The Internet suggests that this is an exaggeration, and I realized that I had already heard one song, probably in concert, the one sung with occasional off-key notes by a tenor whose love means that he “can’t do himself justice.” But productions of “Utopia” are pretty rare and should be enjoyed while they can.

Well, the main purpose of this note is to urge New York readers to rush off to El Museo del Barrio for the final performance at 8.00 p.m. tonight because it is a sparkling, witty, and thoroughly entertaining production. Furthermore, the Blue Hill troupe is a group of amateurs (i.e., they sing, dance, play and perform for love and thus magnificently) whose work has so far raised three and half million dollars for charity. And though the company has added the odd topical reference to Gilbert’s lyrics — a now-hallowed tradition that makes good sense since those lyrics had lines that were originally topical but are now obscure — the most topical song in the show was as originally written. It’s the song of Mr. Goldbury, a company promoter, satirizing what Gilbert thought was the dishonesty of the Joint Stock Companies Act of 1862 that invented limited liability. It still has bite.

Coming home afterwards, I went onto YouTube to track down some performances of “Utopia, Limited” and, of course, like Alice going down the rabbit hole, I found myself trapped in an amazing wonderland of G&S across the five continents. I’m going back in a moment, and I may be gone for some time, but so far I have discovered that lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan are not confined to the Anglosphere, as one might have suspected. Indeed, there are productions of the Savoy Operettas and even G&S societies on both sides o f the national/ethnic/religious divide in the Middle East.

This, admittedly from 1981, is a rather good production of “Patience” by Beirut’s Orpheus Operetta Society in which, according to the person who uploaded it, only the minor parts were played by native English speakers. (Reginald Bunthorne is played by Rajai Khouri with Wildean panache.) And here’s the Jerusalem English Speaking Theater’s (JEST) production of “Iolanthe” from, I think, about four years ago. “Iolanthe” is my favorite of the Savoy operattas; so I’m a tough judge, but this strikes me as terrific. One begins to wonder if Gilbert and Sullivan might not succeed where Nixon, Kissinger, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush . . . Ah, well, perhaps not.

In the meantime, however, here’s Vincent Price joining Keith Michell and Ann Howard in the famous patter song from “Ruddigore.” Oh, and from what must be the best-ever production of “Patience” — namely, the Sydney Opera House’s recent version — here’s Dennis Olsen as Reginald Bunthorne and Anthony Warlow as Archibald Grosvenor. Just terrific. But get the whole operetta on DVD.

And for those benighted souls who don’t like G&S, the Blue Hills Troupe does a Broadway musical every fall. What’s not to like? 

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