East Van Panto: Pinocchio (gets his strings twisted)

Everything about this image is great: Amanda Sum as Jiminy Pattison in a costume by Barbara Clayden
(Photo by Emily Cooper)

If Pinocchio was my first East Van Panto, I’d be writing a different review. But I’ve seen all seven and some — especially Little Red Riding Hood (2016) and The Wizard of Oz (last year) — have been so much better that, although Pinocchio is a good show in some ways, it’s also a disappointment.

Let’s start with its charms. One of them is named Pippa Mackie. Mackie plays the title character with unabashed physicality. When the puppet first comes to life and learns to walk, for instance, she’s all legs, like a Great Dane puppy. And, like a baby pooch, her Pinocchio is all knockabout innocence. Amanda Sum, a Vancouver actor more people need to know about, plays Pinocchio’s sidekick Jiminy Pattison, “Canada’s wealthiest man/cricket”. There’s always a stillness at the centre of Sum’s performances that makes her feel present and responsive onstage — even when she has four arms as she does here, thanks to costumer Barbara Clayden. And Shawn Macdonald is having the time of his life. Playing Pinocchio’s father Gelato, he owns one of the best bits of the show, belting out a parody of Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye” — reworked to be about Gelato’s terrible, environmentally responsible ice cream, which includes recycled diapers. Because Macdonald makes a credible stab at the operatic style, this number is both thrilling and hilarious.

I also want to mention Amanda Testini’s choreography, including the cool suspensions in a parody of Billie Eilish’s “Tough Guy”, which features Sum rocking out as the blond-wigged Act 2 villain.

And there are some smart barbs in Marcus Youssef’s script, including a reference to East Van’s “property-rich, old, white hippies who really hate residential towers.”

But the story of Pinocchio isn’t particularly resonant source material. The Disney movie, which is the version that Youssef seems to be working with here, was released in 1940 and it hasn’t been on the constant replay that has embedded other kids’ stories in our cultural consciousness. Do you remember, for instance, that, in the movie, baddies lure Pinocchio and his pals to Pleasure Island, where they smoke, gamble, get drunk, and — thanks to a curse put on the island — turn into donkeys and are used for slave labour? I remembered this only vaguely, so there wasn’t much pleasure in recognizing Youssef’s variation, in which Pinocchio drinks too much coffee, goes to the PNE, and starts to turn into a racehorse.

Similarly, I didn’t recognize a number of the songs that musical director and lyricist Veda Hille is sending up. No doubt, that’s because I’m getting kind of old, but still.

And one of the tropes that I do remember from the story — Pinocchio’s nose growing when he lies — is barely touched upon in this retelling, which points to an essential problem with Youssef’s script: because Youssef’s Pinocchio has no internal conflict, he experiences no significant transformation — and Youssef’s story is emotionally flat. In the movie, Pinocchio starts out as a selfish little liar. In Carlo Collodi’s nineteenth century novel, Pinocchio is such a bad boy that he is hanged. But, in Youssef’s telling, Pinocchio is a passive innocent, so there’s no internal struggle and no emotional hook.

And the moral world that Youssef presents is a muddle. In the movie, the Blue Fairy promises to make Pinocchio a real boy if he learns to be honest and unselfish, and she assigns Jiminy Cricket to be his conscience. But, in Youssef’s confusing rehash, the Blue Fairy becomes Fairy Instagram-Mother, who tells Pinocchio that he can only be real if he gets thousands of followers on Instagram. So it’s the Fairy who learns a lesson, not Pinocchio. And who would assign a variation of Jimmy Pattison as a conscience?

Youssef doesn’t even give poor Pinocchio juicy villains. Macdonald plays Miss Foxy Cabaret and his drag turn is fun, but it doesn’t begin to match the extravagance of Andrew McNee’s Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, for instance. And the Act 2 villain, whom I’ll keep secret, is a too-distant political figure.

Barbara Clayden’s costumes are fun again this year: a vision in pink and purple, Fairy Instagram-Mother tools around on a purple hoverboard with flashing wheels. But I sorely missed the vivid backdrops that Laura Zerebeski has provided in past pantos; Cindy Mochizuki’s efforts are pedestrian.

I missed wildness. I missed invention. There are things to like. But consider your investment. Starting at $145 for two kids and two adults, the family pack might be your best deal.

EAST VAN PANTO: PINOCCHIO By Marcus Youssef. Music and lyrics by Veda Hille. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Theatre Replacement production presented by The Cultch at the York Theatre on Friday, November 22. Continues until January 5. Tickets.

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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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