East Van Panto plays it smart by balancing big laughs, inside jokes, and some deep topics in The Little Mermaid

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      By Rick Chung

      One of the city’s beloved holiday traditions, East Van Panto, celebrates its 10th anniversary by going under the sea with a reimagining of the classic mer-tale The Little Mermaid

      Theatre Replacement’s version updates Disney’s 1989 blockbuster animated musical (and the original 1837 Hans Christian Andersen dark fairytale) for the 21st century, exploring everything from sexual politics to existential despair to the continued ruination of planet Earth in a decidedly kid-friendly package. Sound heavy? It shouldn’t, because the laughs start here during the show’s opening credits, sung by Panto’s ever-clever musical director Veda Hille.

      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 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.

      Theatre Replacement’s reimagined The Little Mermaid was written by playwright Sonja Bennett, who also wrote and starred in the excellent indie comedy film Preggoland. Horrified by the Disney cartoon after revisiting it with the eyes of an adult and mother, Bennett wisely reversed the tale into a progressive story about environmental activism and ocean pollution focused on a same-sex, interspecies romance.

      This Ariel (a dynamic Amanda Sum) is a human busker and daughter of a widowed mechanic known as "The King of Tire Land," played by a broadly comical Andrew Wheeler as Triton. She gives up her beautiful singing voice when she falls in love with a teenage mer-person (a charming Ghazal Azarbad as Eeer-k) to become a mermaid herself. Unfortunately, she has a short Cinderella-like window to romance Eeer-k and share “true love’s kiss” or be turned into a statue. Sum shines despite spending a significant portion of the show mouthing her lines or sitting motionless on stage.

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

      Meg Roe's direction keeps things straightforward by amplifying the wondrous production design filled with the vibrant colours of the ocean, a stage full of cellophane standing in for the ocean floor, bubbles falling from the ceiling, and clever sea life props and costumes designed by 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 for an endlessly fun backdrop for the enthusiastic songs and body-gyrating choreography.

      Hille’s reimagined songs riff on hits by everyone from Lizzo and the Go-Gos to Yaz and Kate Bush, making the musical side of The Little Mermaid as accessible to Stranger Things fans as to parents (and grandparents) who first heard “Running Up That Hill” on vinyl in the ‘80s. One of the night’s biggest highlights had Azarbad unleashing her inner funk-soul sister to Prince’s “Kiss”—setting up the big kiss moment. Kids, meanwhile, screamed in delight whenever Chavez or Petten showed up in their sea creature costumes to deliver a succession of silly one-liners.

      Billed as "A holiday treat for the whole family!", the annual tradition makes for a 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.

      The Cultch presents Theatre Replacement's East Van Panto: The Little Mermaid running at the York Theatre until Jan. 1. It will be available to watch online on-demand starting Dec. 17 through Re/Play, The Cultch's digital theatre platform.