As the East Van Panto crew puts the finishing touches on Hansel and Gretel in a heritage-schoolhouse hall, Allan Zinyk is surrounded by dancing girls and making eyes at a lovelorn gingerbread man. A sure sign this is not the fairy tale you’re familiar with is the fact he’s singing about how he’s “gonna cook this kid” to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”. (“Set it on convection oven…”)
The warped little moment at Theatre Replacement’s rehearsal space illustrates how the Panto has hit the right, albeit twisted, mix: take pop-song parodies and bizarro humour and then mesh them with a favourite fairy tale. Add copious local references (back-yard chickens, elections, Nick’s Spaghetti House), child actors, and different guest cameos every show, and you have theatre that’s guaranteed to appeal to everyone—including folks who claim they don’t like theatre.
It’s a recipe that’s worked—in a big way. The event’s 2013 debut, Jack and the Beanstalk, drew 5,000 people to the newly opened York Theatre; by last year’s Cinderella, 8,500 caught it, and 11,000 are expected to head to the Drive for the anarchic holiday show this year.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen opening night,” recalls Theatre Replacement’s co–artistic director Maiko Yamamoto, talking about the first Panto, which the Cultch presented to open the York. Taking a break from rehearsal, she describes Jack and the Beanstalk as a matter of just getting artist friends in a room and having fun, with a script by local comedy master Charles Demers (who’s also penned this year’s edition).
“Our expectation was to have a good time—[co–artistic director] Jamie [Long] and I just longed to get our friends together. Generally, the shows we do are not for families and we started having kids. We knew we wanted it to be irreverent, super local, and take the piss out of it,” she adds. The East Van Panto, she offers, is a perfect antidote to the more treacly holiday fare out there.
“And now the show has built up a lovely following. And I get recognized on the street for doing Jack and the Beanstalk more than anything else.”
“I call it elementary-school famous,” Veda Hille adds with a laugh, referring to the young fans who wave to her in the Drive neighbourhood.
The singer, songwriter, and ace keyboardist explains that now that the Theatre Replacement team has built this form, they can play with it. She’s added a drummer this year, and expanded the pop tunes that make the show what it is, adeptly mixing tunes from the Human League and Kraftwerk with German cabaret numbers and TV-show themes. It’s the kind of show that makes you want to get up and dance, as everyone does at the end—adding to the rock-concert feel that new director Stephen Drover wants to emphasize in this year’s show.
“I assemble songs for it all year now. I watch a lot of One Dimension videos,” Hille reveals with a laugh. “I have to ask, ‘What are the songs that people are going to associate with this year?’ This is by far the goofiest thing I work on. I mean, I made my reputation on serious songs. What’s great is I have to reach middle age to be a wiener.”
Drover adds that part of the unique Panto recipe is that it can’t be too polished. Sure, it will have pop-up-book-like three-dimensional sets, but they’ll still have the hand-painted feel of Panto sets from the 19th century. And there’s got to be a bit of room for improvising, especially with a guest cameo each night.
“Maiko said, ‘If we don’t know how to do a transition, get two kids to do a knock-knock joke in front of the closed curtain. And if it’s bad it’s even better!’ ” he says. “The best kind of gift is a homemade gift.”
“But then we snap into great singing and choreography,” Hille adds. “We’re pretending we don’t know what we’re doing, and then it snaps into place.”
Drover adds that if there’s a challenge this year, it’s that Hansel and Gretel, not one of the fairy tales usually pulled for the Panto repertoire, is so dark; he and his team are trying to lighten it up wherever possible. Which brings us to the comedic balance of the East Van Panto, an irreverent mix of the bawdy, the locally political, and the slapstick—but never the nasty.
“We were working on a scene where we were trying to insult Gretel after she fails a cooking competition, and we decided not to say ‘You suck!’ ” says Hille.
Still, there’s more than a little off-colour humour that only adults in the audience will get, like the recurring joke about a real-estate villain’s “one big ball” in last year’s Cinderella.
“This is something which Charlie [Demers] gets: the show goes up over the heads of the kids but hits them, too,” says Yamamoto, who’s playing Gretel in this production.
Call it anarchy, or call it the season’s most adorably subversive theatre show: the East Van Panto appears to be here to stay. And the crew behind it has no fears, yet, of it outgrowing its low-tech charm.
“The trajectory feels good. We’re keeping it about our community and not about production values,” says Yamamoto. She then adds with a laugh: “There probably is not going to be a West Van Panto.”
Hansel and Gretel: An East Van Panto is at the York Theatre from next Friday (December 4) to January 3, 2016.