By Charles Demers. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. Presented by the Cultch and Theatre Replacement. At the York Theatre on Friday, December 6. Continues until December 29
Faint praise can be infuriating. It can also be appropriate. Jack & the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto, is pretty good but there are holes in it.
Written by Charles Demers and directed by Amiel Gladstone, the evening, which playfully retells the story of Jack and his beans, starts off weakly. Veda Hille’s lyrics for her “East Van Panto Theme Song” are okay—“Everybody’s having babies/And we like to vote for Libby Davies”—but it’s not a barnstorming opener. And the number in which Jack’s cow dances is dull.
Things pick up as they get tackier and more irreverent. That happens as soon as Allan Zinyk hits the stage playing Jack’s mother. Wearing a long red wig and orange polyester dress, he trims his leg hair with gardening shears, tries to make an exit stage left only to return with a menu from Nick’s Spaghetti House, which is next door, and then crashes into construction debris from the York Theatre’s recent reno backstage. That’s the kind of creative mayhem pantos thrive on.
And there’s more where that came from. Hille turns “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into an anthem of Jack’s upwardly mobile aspirations: “If sweet Tibetan prayer flags fly just west of Cambie/why oh why can’t I?” And when the Fe Fi giant says that he smells an East Van man, his wife notes that’s not hard to do.
Zinyk is the standout in the cast, and Dawn Petten is also funny as the giant’s out-of-tune Welsh harp; her patter song about cheese is a highlight. Raugi Yu makes one focused chicken. And Patti Allan is an amusingly world-weary Mrs. Giant. Maiko Bae Yamamoto lends her sweet singing voice to Jack, but Yamamoto’s natural reserve makes her a strange casting choice for such an exuberant form.
The small size of the company makes the evening feel thin; it’s hard to create chaos with only five hands on deck. And Demers’s writing disappoints with mildness: there’s virtually none of the sexual innuendo that usually fuels pantos and too little topical political content.
The evening looks spectacular, thanks largely to Laura Zerebski’s painted backdrops, which are vivid, swirling renditions of East Van sites. Heather Redfern, executive director of the Cultch, created the playful costumes: the giant sports both a Marge Simpson wig and troll feet.
I liked a lot of what I got. I wanted more.