Hansel and Gretel: An East Van Panto is freewheeling fun

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      By Charles Demers. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Theatre Replacement production, presented by the Cultch. At the York Theatre on Friday, December 4. Continues until January 3

      There’s a moment in Hansel and Gretel: An East Van Panto that made me a particularly happy man. Playing the wicked stepmother, Allan Zinyk sports a pink beehive and rocks a pink brocade skirt, jacket, and matching sneakers. He belts out a tune as children dressed as woodland creatures scurry around him. Now, that’s what I call holiday entertainment.

      Now in their third year, Theatre Replacement’s pantos just keep getting better because they keep getting wilder. Veda Hille’s witty musical contributions have always been a huge part of their success. This year, nodding to Hansel and Gretel’s Germanic roots, the show starts with the vamp from Cabaret’s “Willkommen” and blooms into a full, Bob Fosse–like number in which the blond twins dance in front of a chorus of bearded, plaid-wearing East Van hipsters. That music transforms, somehow, into the theme from Gilligan’s Island, and, somewhere in there, we get the self-deprecating lyric “This is not A Christmas Carol/It’s the bottom of the barrel.”

      Charles Demers’s script establishes its left-wing bona fides early on. Urging the audience to cheer more loudly, the narrator, Barry Easta, who works at a local coffee shop, prods, “Let’s pretend you live in a country where Stephen Harper is no longer in charge of anything.” That brought the house down.

      And there are plenty of witty references to local events: to put Hansel and Gretel to sleep in the wilds of Stanley Park, where she will soon abandon them, the stepmother gives the two kids a summary of the voting patterns in the recent transit plebiscite.

      Pantos are all about excess and director Steven Drover grabs that sensibility and sticks his tongue down its throat, leaning unabashedly into the mirror-ball effect, for instance.

      The material gets a little sketchier in Act 2, which starts with a fun sing-along, then wanders into a less fruitful parody of a cooking show. Don’t cooking shows already parody themselves? The lull, which goes on for a while, gave me the chance to wish that there was more political satire, including more pointed parody of East Van self-righteousness.

      But, blessedly, Hansel and Gretel didn’t let me stay in my critical head for too long. In the second act, Zinyk plays the witch as well as the stepmom and his witchy voice sounds like Carol Channing speaking from hell. Throughout, Zinyk’s shtick, including some lipstick business, is fantastic. And Dawn Petten is the heart of the show: her Hansel is a fully realized clown, full of braggadocio and innocent charm. A more reserved performer, Maiko Yamamoto sometimes looks out of place in the wild world of pantomime. Here, however, her understatement as Gretel makes an effective counterpoint to Petten’s freewheeling Hansel. Playing the father, the narrator, and a gingerbread man named Ginger Brad, Josue Laboucane, who left Vancouver a few years ago as a promising emerging performer, returns from the Stratford Festival as a versatile and polished pro.

      Marina Szijarto’s costumes are ridiculously good. Just wait till you see Hansel after he’s been fattened up. And Laura Zerebeski’s painterly backdrops, which the company has used every year, continue to stun.

      Many holiday shows feel like slick commercial products. Watching Hansel and Gretel: An East Van Panto feels like playing with friends.