Little Red Riding Hood is the best East Van Panto so far

Mark Chavez wrote Little Red Riding Hood, this year's East Van Panto.

Rachel Aberle’s Red can sing—and she’s just a little bit sly.

The East Van Panto is now officially the best holiday tradition in Vancouver—in my Vancouver, anyway.

I started loving this year’s panto, Little Red Riding Hood, the minute I entered the theatre. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy being in an audience that has a whole whack of kids in it. Being swept along by their enthusiasm is like, I don’t know, surfing on bubbles.

And Little Red Riding Hood, which is the fourth annual panto that Theatre Replacement has produced and The Cultch has presented, is also the best of the bunch. This is no knock on the others; these shows been getting better every year. This success of the 2016 edition is due in large part to the wacky script by Mark Chavez and to Andrew McNee’s ridiculously charismatic performance in a number of roles—most notably as the giddy, sexy wolf.

Chavez doesn’t lean heavily into politics. Holiday Clause, the evening’s emcee, who is played by McNee, mentions that he’s got a lot of time on his hands since being fired from the School Board, but, blessedly, there’s only one mention of Trump. That’s enough. Who wants to invite the Dark Prince to your Christmas party?

Instead, the playwright capitalizes on cultural absurdities. Red has obsessively protective gay fathers, for instance. When the family is heading off to daddy/daddy/daughter djembe drumming classes, Dad and Dad wrap Red in bubble wrap, but fail to notice that they’re leaving the house with the protective armour only, leaving the child behind—and free to explore the wicked, exciting world.

Chavez pokes pins in gentrification. Red’s grandma Roxy lives in the Woodward’s building instead of the woods, and Red takes the Adanac bike route to get there. Near the Sunrise Market, she meets a hipster, who is eating gentri-fries from a newly established eatery. Red knows about the wolf but, when she warns this painfully superior woman about him, the hipster replies, “Wolves are cool. They’re like, nature’s dogs.”

There are dozens of jokes per square inch in this show. Let me share just two more to give you a sense of Chavez-style surrealism and absurdity. Red checks in regularly with Siri, who moans, at one point, “I am alone. I am so alone.” And Act 2 starts with a rousingly performed rewrite of a holiday classic that includes the lyric, “Randolph the average reindeer/Had a very average face.”

The precious Veda Hille wrote the lyrics to all of the songs except the reindeer tune. She also acts as composer and performs on keyboards with Barry Mirochnick on drums. Hille repurposes a crazy diversity of pop songs by artist as diverse as Kanye West, Leonard Cohen, Beyoncé, and Johnny Cash. My favourite Hille lyric comes in a parody of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. Chavez’s script incorporates the story of the three little pigs as part of a subplot in which the pig who had the brick house has been enslaved by the wolf, for whom he as developed a bit of a thing. In Hille’s lyric, the wolf sings, “You say Stockholm”, and the pig replies, “I say syndrome.”

Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Laura Zerebeski’s painted backdrops reveal Vancouver as Van Gogh might have seen it. And, as always, Marina Szijarto’s costumes are enough to make a drag queen weep with pleasure. Just wait till you get a load of the wolf’s big felted ears and his matching felted cardigan.

Then there’s McNee. He’s having so much fun as the wolf, Holiday Clause, and a bike cop that I want to make those performances into jam and spread them on toast. Then I’ll know what joy tastes like.

Under Anita Rochon’s direction, all of the performers are terrific. James Long is hilarious as the dithery gay dad: all of his joints seem to swivel randomly and independently. And Rachel Aberle makes a perfect Red Riding Hood, sweet and sure of voice, forthright of character, and sly enough to deliver just the right comic spin.

I could happily see this show again and probably will. Its moral is custom-made for our age of anxious parenting: “You see. Not every stranger you meet is out to eat you.” And the community-minded lyrics of the final song are really what it’s all about: “We all belong together.” Yes, yes we do.

EAST VAN PANTO: LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD By Mark Chavez. Directed by Anita Rochon. Music by Veda Hille. A Theatre Replacement production presented by The Cultch at the York Theatre on Friday, November 25.

Get tickets by phoning 604-251-1363 or at http://thecultch.com/tickets/

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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