East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid – underwater heaven


Publicity photo for East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid

Amanda Sum and Ghazal Azarbad get smoochy — with Adam Weaver in the background.(Photo by Emily Cooper)

It’s spectacular, a stupidly good time — and I mean that in the most enthusiastic way possible.

For this year’s East Van Panto, playwright Sonja Bennett has turned the 1989 Disney animation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid inside out, so it really doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the movie, although you’ll catch a few more references if you have.

In Bennett’s telling, Ariel is a human girl who falls in love with a mermaid named Eeer-k and makes a questionable deal with Ursula the octopus/sea witch so that she can pursue her would-be girlfriend into the ocean: if Ariel can’t get Eeer-k to kiss her before sundown, she’ll be turned to stone.

The performances are all casually, hilariously flawless. Amanda Sum brings deadpan innocence — and a tendency to break into interpretive dance — to Ariel. This commitment to (weird) simplicity is pure clowning. Dawn Petten frickin’ killed me as Ursula. Callous, dismissive, sexy, absurd: who else could have come up with that combo? And Petten is so confident; she’s having so much fun! Andrew Wheeler is touchingly basset-like as Ariel’s dad, Triton. And Mark Chavez is flying wild as Ariel’s crab friend Sebastian, hurling himself at the material, and apparently making stuff up on the fly, cracking up his fellow performers — and himself. Ghazal Azarbad as Eeer-k: well, basically, I want to be Ghazal Azarbad when I grow up. This time out, she’s brightly sexy with her blue lips, blue hair, and wide eyes. And the woman can sing! Like she’s torchy. Who knew?

Together set and props designer John Webber and costumer Alaia Hamer have created an almost psychedelic experience. When the story went underwater, I was transported. It was like being a kid at the theatre for the very first time: the wonder of it! All those gauzy pastel panels of undersea life, all of that sparkling tinsel seaweed! And Hamer’s costumes are crazy good. There’s a black-and-white striped fish with gauzy orange and gold fins that’s still swimming around in my brain. I loved the bright pink fish eggs on the salmon’s headdress. And don’t get me started on Ursula’s rhinestoned curls.

Composer and musical director Veda Hille has repurposed a slew of pop songs to keep things hoppin’. I’m not musically literate enough to name these songs on the fly, but who cares? Their hooks are instantly recognizable and their energy is infectious.

Bennett’s script plays with storytelling conventions: Triton patiently explains to Ariel that he has to be emotionally stunted because he’s a father in a fairy tale. There are all sorts of crazy puns — about being too shellfish or overly offishious. And, in the best line in the show, a late-breaking character says, “Want a different answer, find a different mother.”

All of this serves a blessedly optimistic, but far from stupid message about climate change: the sea creatures are desperately trying to fight off the purple slime of despair. Aren’t we all?

If we hadn’t already been standing up and dancing at the end of this show, I would have leapt to my feet.

EAST VAN PANTO: THE LITTLE MERMAID Written by Sonja Bennett. Composer/musical director: Veda Hille. Directed by Meg Roe. A Theatre Replacement production presented by The Cultch. At the York Theatre on Thursday, November 18. Continues until January 1. Tickets and information


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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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