I want to live there. East Van Panto: The Wizard of Oz is my new happy place. I’m going to see if I can just rent out one of the seats in the York Theatre for the duration of the run.
This is the sixth year of Theatre Replacement’s East Van Panto, and this edition is one of the best.
You’ve got to hand it to the folks at Theatre Replacement: they mix things up. For the first time this year, Marcus Youssef wrote the show.
In Youssef’s version of the story, Dorothy, who lives in Port Coquitlam, isn’t knocked out by a tornado; it’s an exploding oil pipeline that does the job. The Wicked Witch of Western Canada, the driving force behind the Raise the Seas Pipeline, is none other than Rachel Notley—described here as being “fake NDP”. And the Good Wiccan of North Vancouver is the CBC’s own Gloria Macarenko—which gives everybody the perfect opportunity to sing “Macarena” with altered lyrics.
Youssef’s script is so uninhibited—so politically audacious and so goofball at the same time—that taking it in opens up a big pink sea of permission, permission to howl at absurdities. Justin Trudeau shows up right off the top in all of his narcissistic, equivocating glory. Trudeau reassures us that we can get along with both the oil-loving Witch and the liberal Wiccan. And, when things get dicey, he asks, “Shouldn’t my hair be enough?”
The inventiveness goes on and on. Tin Man becomes the non-binary Tin Them. Scarecrow is a doobie named Stoned Crow: he’s stuffed with marijuana instead of straw. And the Cowardly Lion becomes a reluctant BC Lions footballer. Their collective mission is to locate the Wizard of OV—OV as in Olympic Village.
The examples I’m giving may give you the impression that this show is geared too heavily towards adults, but no! The kids in the opening-night audience were screaming along with everybody else: “Oh no you won’t!”; “Look behind you!”
And the kids who are performing in the show cracked my heart with their cuteness. The role of Toto will be rotated throughout the run but, on opening might, Kiyo Roth made such a sweet, sad-eyed little pooch that I couldn’t look at her without sighing, “Oh buddy!” And just wait till you see the kids dancing. Amanda Testini’s choreography does a great job of accommodating everybody’s skill levels.
The show looks frickin’ fantastic. Instead of flying monkeys in her castle, Notley has a bunch of plucked-chicken slaves in her Point Grey mansion—a reference to an East Van chicken processing plant. I suspect the costumes that Barbara Clayden has created for these characters will be the subject of daytime hilarity and sleep-time nightmares for me for years to come. Their puckered skin and their scrawny legs are simultaneously so creepy and so funny!
Scenic artist Laura Zerebeski, who has always provided glorious, wavy-shaped backdrops, has outdone herself. She renders a strip of Hastings in oranges and blues that are so intense they’re imprinted on my retinas.
Musicians Veda Hille and Barry Mirochnik are eternal stars. This year, Hille has reinvented no fewer than 20 pop songs.
And the cast is perfect. I especially appreciated Craig Erickson’s manic commitment as Notley: sporting a blond wig and a black, vaguely cowgirl outfit, he sucks up the crowd’s booing as if he’s lapping at nectar. Dawn Petten hurls herself into the physicality of her roles (Tin Them and one of Dorothy’s wacky aunts). Raugi Yu is so endearingly earnest as Stoned Crow that he’s genuinely charming. And Christine Quintana makes an appropriately straight-ahead, grounding Dorothy. Then there’s Kayvon Khoshkam’s Trudeau, as hilariously energetic and (deliberately) annoying as a puppy.
Maybe because it gets a little more tripped up with plot, Act 2 isn’t as strong as Act 1, but I don’t really care. Director Steven Drover keeps things moving and Act 2 contains one of his best directorial moments, the melting of the Wicked Witch.
By the time we were all supposed to be singing the last song together, I couldn’t join in because I was crying—in a good way.
EAST VAN PANTO: THE WIZARD OF OZ By Marcus Youssef. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Theatre Replacement production presented by The Cultch. At the York Theatre on Friday, November 30. Continues until January 6. Tickets.
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