Annual East Van Panto keeps it festive, fun and foolish

“P-A-NTO. P-A-NTO.” Out of the mouth of babes: a tousled hair little kid — not more than four years old — chanted as he headed out into the lobby, past the candy canes and into the rain after opening night of Theatre Replacement’s fourth annual East Van Christmas Panto. Past his bedtime and still going.

In the huge hole left in the Christmas season when Leaky Heaven Circus quit doing their much-loved show, Theatre Replacement, in association with the Cultch, jumped in. And are we grateful? “Oh, yes, we are.” “Oh, no, you aren’t.” “Oh, yes, we are.” The East Van Panto has become the made-in-Vancouver kickoff to the festive season.

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Don’t worry if you don’t have kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews: give yourself the gift of rib-tickling laughter. Directed by Anita Rochon and written this year by Mark Chavez, it’s as much for adults as it is for kids. Jabs at U.S. politics, school board firings, over-parenting (Little Red is wrapped in bubble-wrap by one of her two same-sex parents), bike helmets and jaywalking all go over the youngsters’ heads but tickle adult funnybones. Also for the grownups are one-liners like, “Wolves are cool — they’re, like, nature’s dogs.” Two little pigs have already been eaten by the “devilishly handsome” Wolf (Andrew McNee); the remaining one (played by Chirag Naik) is, accordingly to the Wolf, “my best friend.” The pig, however, disagrees: “I’m your hostage.”

It’s full of references to familiar places: the Adanac Bike Path, the big “W” atop the old Woodward’s Building, Knight and Hastings streets and Womyn’s Ware. That’s where I’m gonna buy my clothes when I’m a woman,” says Red (Rachel Aberle). Hmm, do dildo harnesses count as clothes?

Obviously there’s a lot for the kids, too, and do they get into it? “Oh, yes, they do.” “Oh, no, they don’t.” “Oh, yes, they do.” In a big way. McNee (also playing Holiday Claus or maybe that’s Holiday Claws or Holiday Clause) tells the kids right off the bat that it might be scary but, “It’s all pretend.” Right.

Some of the best moments are when a single small voice pipes up from somewhere in the audience. “Why didn’t anybody warn me?” asks the Wolf — or maybe it was Red. Tiny voice: “We did.” And when Red’s bicycle gets vandalized and she asks how is she going to get to Grandma’s house, another little voice calls out, “Walk.” It’s a big part of the fun.

Some of the cartoonish, painted sets are recycled, but it only makes sense: the East Van Panto is always set in, where else? East Van. Set designer is Marshall McMahen. Marina Szijarto has whipped up fantastic costumes too numerous to count. And, again, the fabulous Veda Hille, with drummer Barry Mirochnick, make beautiful music together. Two dozen songs, from “I Will Survive” to “Bicycle Race” have been re-worded to fit the story — a mash-up of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. Choreography is by Tracey Power.

Rachel Aberle is a perky, scrappy Little Red; James Long makes a sort of raunchy Grandma and weird Wheel Man, a bicycle-wheel forager with a speech impediment; Chirag Naik is the last surviving little pig as well as filling a variety of other roles. Completing the cast are three lucky Studio 58 students Elizabeth Barrett, Mason Temple and Stephanie Wong and a handful of delightful little kids.

A big shout out has to go to Andrew McNee who is, truly, a comic genius who can get several hundred people laughing with a single look. As the Wolf, he relishes every “Boooo” that rises like a tsunami from the audience.

Thank you, Theatre Replacement and the Cultch, for the lovely Christmas present. “You shouldn’t have.” “Oh, yes, we should.” Well, thank you. I loved it. I really, really did. Best present ever.

For more reviews, go to joledingham.ca.

East Van Panto: Little Red Riding Hood at the York Theatre until Dec. 31. Tickets at thecultch.com or by calling 604-251-1363.

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