East Van Panto: Pinocchio carries warm message beneath hypercaffeinated antics

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      By Marcus Youssef. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Theatre Replacement production. At the York Theatre on Sunday, November 24. Continues until January 5

      East Van Panto has always been hypercaffeinated, but perhaps never more literally so than in a number this year, where the Drive’s numerous coffee outposts battle it out for superiority. Just when you think Joe’s, Continental, the Calabria, and the rest of the old-schoolers have finished with their feud, newcomers Prado and Moja join the action.

      Yes, this year’s version, the second in a row written by Marcus Youssef, is peak Drive. Even the title puppet, Pinocchio, hails from a box of refuse in the back of Beckwoman’s—a “hippie emporium” run by a woman who, we’re led to believe, has a pathological aversion to customers. Instead of Geppetto, we get Gelato (Shawn Macdonald), a lonely ice-cream vendor who can’t figure out why his eco-friendly recycled flavours (used chewing gum and frozen baby diapers, anyone?) don’t sell.

      But as much as the playwright loves the Drive, the subversive scribe is not afraid to send it up; one zinger refers to “property-rich, old, white hippies who really hate residential towers”.

      Youssef’s latest is also even more full of political barbs than his The Wizard of Oz was last year. (Everyone from Andrew Scheer to Justin Trudeau gets their digs, and wait till you see the surprise villain in Act 2.)

      This Panto knows instinctively what the strong contingent of kids in the audience will like: namely, the odd fart joke and characters who detest all children.

      “They just play Fortnite, dab, and eat Tide Pods all day,” Naomi Wright’s scarf-bedecked Beckwoman bemoans.

      And some of the show’s biggest laughs come when a villain cooks up the “Kids Only” Hastings Racecourse, complete with slot machines and Monster energy drinks on tap.

      With all that in mind, the biggest surprise may be that Pinocchio carries deeper messages than usual, slyly reaching for meaning amid the chaos.

      It can do this, in large part, because Pippa Mackie brings such huge heart to the show as the innocent puppet-boy, coming to life with wobbly hinges and bouncy knees. Watch her “I flip it, I flop it, I pop it, I lock it” in a hip-hop ode to “7 Rings”. (Shout out to choreographer Amanda Testini.)

      In this retelling, the Fairy Instagram Mother (Chirag Naik, perched on a hoverboard, in a pink wig and size-11 purple-patent boots) tells Pinocchio he won’t be “real” unless he gets 100,000 followers on social media—and the whole show playfully pushes us to look at what makes us real these days. At one point the Fairy deadpans, “You haven’t posted in more than 15 minutes—I thought you were dead!” Pinocchio’s “conscience consultant” Jiminy Pattison (Amanda Sum) tries to counteract the bad messaging, but “Canada’s wealthiest man-cricket” is so busy buying up grocery stores and car dealerships he’s rarely around.

      More insanity ensues, with villains Mademoiselle Fox Cabaret (Shawn Macdonald’s demented creation, a drag spin on Cruella de Vil, if she were more into red and white) and jazz crooner–impresario Michael Bublé (Naik again), running some kind of cheesy puppet ring.

      Emily Cooper

      Amid it all, though, Pinocchio prods us to reconsider what’s important—namely, real connections with real people; families, no matter how dysfunctional or nontraditional; and the kind of whacked-out community Theatre Replacement’s annual gift celebrates each year.

      Music maestra Veda Hille (on keyboards, with Barry Mirochnick on drums) mixes it up with the usual eclectic abandon, her score reimagining everything from Hamilton songs to smashes by Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish. The highlight is a take on Andrea Bocelli’s pop-opera ballad “Con Te Partirò”, which Macdonald’s Italian gelato man pulls off with tenor-iffic splendour, stopping to weep quietly, and wring “Awwwwws” out of the audience.

      Overall, the show doesn’t quite reach the demented pitch of Youssef’s Wizard of Oz—which, to be fair, ranks as one of the best in a strong Panto history. And the stage never seems quite as full and crazily Technicolor as past productions, with Cindy Mochizuki’s painted backdrops not popping as much as the wonderfully warped East Van streetscapes by artist Laura Zerebeski.

      Still, you’ll feel surprisingly good emerging out onto the Drive from this two-hour escape from Insta likes. Just be careful which flavour of gelato you get on the way home.