The sturdily built British warship is laden with cannon and shot, packed with husky sailors ready to repel enemy boarders, all willing to die to protect their beloved Union Jack fluttering high in the rigging.
So who named their ship after a piece of women’s clothing?
Theatergoers will have to attend to learn whether “H.M.S. Pinafore” answers that question. W.S. Gilbert & Sullivan’s comedy sets sail at the River City Playhouse in Ilwaco, Wash., on Friday, March 29, and runs for three weekends with Friday and Saturday evening performances and Sunday matinees.
The stage has been converted into a 19th-century sailing vessel by Andy Tauber, set designer and stage manager, complete with an authentic ship’s wheel, bell and a bowsprit that pokes out from the stage into the audience. There’s even a loaned cannon from a 1903 shipwreck near Cape Disappointment.
The operetta made its debut in London in 1878, the first international hit of the duo’s 14 collaborations that paved the way for “Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado.” All three feature characters appointed to high office without a shred of skill or experience.
'The Lass That Loved a Sailor'
As Freemasons, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan held a core belief in the equality of man. They employed their comic libretto to lampoon Britain’s rigid social structures epitomized by the stifling hierarchy of the military.
The Peninsula Players’ version is a musical melodrama, a shorter adaptation, which has the subtitle “The Lass That Loved a Sailor.”
Its best-known ditty, “He Is An Englishman,” mocks that nation’s superiority and blind patriotism. It may be familiar to audience members who recall the ferryboat scene in the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire” or the fifth-season “Simpsons” episode in which Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) kidnaps Bart.
It is the 12th musical directed by Rita Smith, who also appears as the female lead, Josephine, and assists choreographer Annika Kay. Smith hadn’t planned to cast herself, but two other singers dropped out.
“I think the songs themselves are very catchy,” Smith said. “I think the people are going to come out humming them.”
Robert Scherrer, the first-time assistant director, plays the ship’s captain who wants his daughter to make a prestigious marriage to the First Lord of the Admiralty (David Immel). He heads the Royal Navy, despite having no nautical ability. But Josephine is in love with a lower-class sailor, played by Bob Goldberg. Should she obey her father or flout social conventions?
Compounding the action is Kevin Perry as a conniving crew member, Dick Deadeye, one of G&S’s most memorable supporting characters. Scherrer calls him “one step short of a pirate.”
There is also Little Buttercup, a socially low woman played by Andrea Patten, who has her heart set on the captain.
Featured roles include Bette Lu Krause as the Admiralty officer’s cousin, and Jim Tweedie and Aarin Hoygaard, who appear as the Bosun and his mate. Hoygaard played Chip in the Chinook, Wash., production of “Beauty and the Beast” last summer.
Sailors and other roles are played by Bill Clark (the show’s producer), and Natasha Beals, Patrick Buckley, Gretchen Goodson, Rose Power and Melissa Goldberg.
Scherrer and Immel will not consciously employ British accents, though they acknowledge their commitment to clear diction suits Gilbert’s precise word choices.
“I don’t have an accent; it’s unfortunate that we all can’t embrace that,” Scherrer said. “It’s either all or none, and we felt it would be a struggle for some.”
Take a bow
Both Scherrer and Immel appreciate the Players’ stalwart musical director, Barbara Bate, who will play the keyboard during performances.
“There’s something really nice about having nice live accompaniment,” Scherrer said. “She follows us.”
Immel, a retired professional performer, likes the flexibility that cannot exist with a taped soundtrack playing. If a singer falters, Bate can play another bar and help them back on track. “She’s like musical magic in many ways,” Immel said.
The matching striped shirts and neckerchiefs of the sailors, plus the officers’ distinctive bicorn hats, uniforms and medals have been created by Darlene Montgomery, assisted by Peggy Immel, who adds her professional costuming experience backstage.
The director encourages people to savor the cast and crew’s handiwork, and see some familiar faces. “This is true community theater. Our cast ranges in age from 11 to 80,” Smith said. “There’s not a lot of places where you can see your friends — whether they are 11 or 80 — up on stage.”