In six short years, Theatre Replacement's East Van Panto has become a Vancouver tradition, to the point where it's hard to imagine the holidays without it. This year's version, as always, follows classic Panto traditions – encouragement of cheering and booing by the audience, cross-dressing villains, and split-level humour aimed at both the kids and adults. But, true to its name, it also has a strong streak of progressive political parody running through it. The result is one of their best shows yet, a playful take on The Wizard of Oz.
Little Dorothy (Christine Quintana) lives a humdrum life in an outrageously expensive "tiny home" in Poco with her Auntie Em - and En. But then Wicked Witch Notley from Alberta rams a pipeline through her neighbourhood, and when it inevitably bursts, Dorothy is flung into the Emerald – er, Greenest City and begins her quest to return home.
Along the way she meets some familiar characters who are given a distinctly topical spin. The cowardly lion (Craig Erickson) is a BC Lion who's afraid of the football. The straw-filled character in need of a brain (Raugi Yu) is filled with something green and newly legal - and has more of a love-hate relationship with fire. And the "tin man" (Dawn Petten) is now a "tin them"... according to their preferred pronouns.
The script (by Marcus Youssef) manages to mock and skewer a wide range of familiar targets, in a way that is never mean-spirited. It manages to be "politically correct" while simultaneously seeming to gently mock the concept. It gleefully takes aim at everything from sky-high Vancouver real estate, to kombucha, to the laughing-man statues at English Bay, to stinky poultry-processing plants, to Lululemon founder Chip Wilson. And politicians. Not only is Rachel Notley the villainess of the piece, but a selfie-obsessed Justin Trudeau kicks off the show, then keeps barging back in to make use of the skills he honed in his theatre-teacher days, proclaiming an era of "funny ways" – and acting as a magnet for boos.
On the musical front, the incredibly multitalented Veda Hille returns and is an essential element to the show's success, responsible not only for the witty spinoffs of popular tunes, but also providing a big orchestral sound with the help of only one other performer, drummer/guitarist Barry Mirochnick. Mistaken for Alanis Morissette by "Justin Trudeau", she kicks things off by singing the sponsor thank-you's in the style of one of Alanis's biggest hits; after that, she weaves a musical path through everything from vintage pop like "Footloose" and "Walking on Sunshine" to the latest hits by Drake and Katy Perry - and, eventually, a perfect rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by the dulcet-voiced Quintana.
On a side note, I was also personally delighted that a comic half-idea that had floated around my head for years was finally brought to fruition – Gloria Macarenko's surname gets turned into "The Macarena", a bouncy recital of all your favourite CBC on-air personalities!
I guess it's inevitable that certain plot-drivers and archetypes from past shows, like the pipeline or bearded East Van hipsters, reappear in "Wizard of Oz". And personally, I felt the reveal of the "man behind the curtain" wasn't quite the delightful surprise I'd hoped for - and that the character wobbled uneasily between villain and "good guy". But these are minor quibbles in a show that consistently had the adults roaring, while the playful characters, fast-paced story and audience involvment kept kids utterly engaged.
Don't miss your chance to follow in the footsteps of Dorothy and her ruby Fluevogs - it's a perfect East Van way to enjoy the holidays!