November 28, 2022

SCENE | A Decade of 'East Van Panto' – Reversing 'The Little Mermaid'

"Human beings are so emotionally manipulative!"
East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid
Mark Chavez / Photo credit | Emily Cooper
Commercial DriveEast Van Panto, Theatre Replacement's beloved annual holiday tradition presented by The Cultch returns to the York Theatre to celebrate its tenth anniversary by going under the sea with a reimagined contemporary retelling of the classic mer-tale, The Little Mermaid. Gone is the underwhelming and patriarchal romance about an uncomfortably attractive teen princess literally giving up her voice for some bland random dude she met once—replaced here with a very charming pop musical parody about environmentalism, climate change, and unconventional love.

For the uninitiated, "pantomime", originally a British tradition, is a heightened fairytale-type performance complete with songs, dances, jokes, exaggerated characters, and strongly encouraged audience participation, all aimed at children and families most commonly staged around Christmas. This decidedly revamped East Van remix plays on the iconic but problematic blockbuster 1989 Disney animated musical as inspired by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's original nineteenth-century dark fable.

Written by playwright Sonja Bennett, who starred in and wrote the excellent indie comedy film Preggoland, she was horrified by the Disney cartoon when revisiting it as an adult and mother. She remarked, "It's basically about a teenage girl with the body of a porn star who gives up her voice and entire awesome ocean life to marry some land rando with the charisma of a slug that she’s met once." Bennett wisely reverses the tale into a progressive story about environmental activism and ocean pollution focused on a same-sex interspecies romance starring two female-identifying actors of colour.

This time, Ariel (a dynamic Amanda Sum) is human, a busker and the daughter of a widowed mechanic known as "The King of TIre Land" (a broadly comical Andrew Wheeler as Triton) who gives up her beautiful singing voice early on when she falls in love with a teenage mer-person (a charming Ghazal Azarbad as Eeer-k) to become a mermaid herself for just one night with a ticking clock on their possible coupling, not unlike the plot of Cinderella. Sum shines despite spending a significant portion of the show mouthing her lines or sitting motionless on stage.

It's a fun cast consisting of seasoned actors, emerging performers, theatre students, multi-disciplined artists, talented musicians, and even several small (and super cute) children. However, the clear highlight is comedian Mark Chavez's wildly comical performance as the narrating crab Sebastian adorned with a makeshift JJ Bean coffee cup shell. Dawn Petten's maniacal turn as the evil Ursala is a close second as another standout who chews on every meaty piece of dialogue or song she's given.

East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid
Kevin Nguyen, Amanda Sum, Mark Chavez, and Ghazal Azarbad
Meg Roe's direction keeps things straightforward by amplifying the wondrous production design on stage from designers John Webber (set and properties), Alaia Hamer (costumes), Sophie Tang (lighting), Cindy Machizuki (scenic illustrations), and Heidi Wilkinson (props). All the colourful artistry on display makes the most of the magical underwater setting with some great song and dance choreography by Amanda Testini meant to showcase its whole putting-on-a-show vibe.

With music composed and directed by Veda Hille, the choice of songs and execution in parodying catchy tunes from everyone like Lizzo to the Go-Gos to Yaz and a truly funkadelic riff of Prince's "Kiss", the East Van Panto team have streamlined their musical penchant for amusing cultural references to maximize audience enjoyment and participation without calling too much attention to its pop culture twists.

Billed as "A holiday treat for the whole family!", the annual tradition of a show does indeed make for a fun and wholesome family-friendly experience with a few hidden adult jokes reminiscent of a crowd-pleasing Pixar film. It's easy to enjoy the little touches—from singing the opening remarks thanking various government agencies, funders, and organizations to the use of truly adorable children as company performers.

There's more than enough fun for grownups in the aggressive pleasantness of the whole East Van Panto experience. It helps this version of The Little Mermaid keeps all the innocent amusement of the fairytale while updating things for a much more diverse story by embedding its inclusive themes explicitly right into the on-stage antics. It is indeed a real treat for theatregoers of all ages.

East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid runs until New Year's Day on stage at the York Theatre. It will be available to watch online on-demand starting December 17th through Re/Play, The Cultch's digital theatre platform.

As seen in and originally published for The Georgia Straight.

More | YVArcade / Colin Thomas / Range / Stir / Tyee

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