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Dawn Petten, centre, stars as Alice in East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland.EMILY COOPER/The Cultch

  • Title: East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland
  • Written by: Sonja Bennett
  • Director: Meg Roe
  • Music by: Veda Hille
  • Musical Director: Ben Elliott
  • Starring: Dawn Petten, Amanda Sum, Ghazal Azarbad, Raugi Yu and Mark Chavez
  • Company: The Cultch and Theatre Replacement
  • Venue: The York Theatre
  • City: Vancouver
  • Until: Jan. 2, 2022
  • Online: Dec. 18-Jan 2

Critic’s Pick

We’re in a pandemic and a climate-change crisis. It has never felt harder to embrace silliness. And yet it has never felt more essential. It has never been more difficult to keep holiday traditions, and yet tradition has never felt so important.

Let me tell you about the East Van Panto: a hyperlocal show from East Vancouver that the whole country deserves to experience.

When the Panto launched nine holiday seasons ago, I was unfamiliar with the British tradition. When I heard “pantomime,” I thought: silent performance. This is a whole other thing. A panto is a musical comedy, a family show, usually at Christmas, with stock elements: topical references; audience participation – lots of shouting at the actors onstage at prescribed moments; gender reversal; and a script based on a well-known story (fairy tales are big) that works for kids and adults.

That first year’s panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, opened the renovated York Theatre. It was a revelation: so full of joy and genuine laughs. I have never missed a panto since.

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Amanda Sum, Mark Chavez and Raugi Yu in East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland.EMILY COOPER/The Cultch

For years, we attended the Christmas Eve matinee; but traditions morph, along with families, and we now go opening night: our unofficial launch to the holiday season. Last year, we watched a pandemic livestream, which was very well done. This year, we were back in the theatre on Friday night for Alice in Wonderland. (The show will also be available online.)

Alice, a 10-year-old living in the Vancouver suburb of New Westminster, is tired of the pandemic and really, really wants a cellphone. But her mother says she is too young. When Alice spots a large white rabbit wearing a sandwich board offering a free phone, she runs after him, following him onto the SkyTrain. She emerges in a different neighbourhood: Grandview Wonderland.

The real neighbourhood of Grandview-Woodland in East Vancouver is home to Commercial Drive, a vibrant shopping street where the York Theatre is located.

But in Grandview Wonderland, the small businesses of the Drive are struggling in the shadow of the Super Giant Evil Online Store.

In pursuit of her free phone, Alice encounters transit cops Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumb, attends a left-wing political tea party, and meets the show’s villain: The Queen of Hearts, Jess Cheetos (*cough* Jeff Bezos *cough*), whose online megastore is threatening to take over the retail world.

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Playwright Sonja Bennett delivers a delight of a script that rides the range from clever cultural commentary to literal fart jokes.EMILY COOPER/The Cultch

Playwright Sonja Bennett (who wrote and starred in the feature film Preggoland and has written on Kim’s Convenience and Letterkenny) delivers a delight of a script that rides the range from clever cultural commentary to literal fart jokes. You don’t need to get every East Vancouver in-joke to appreciate the hilarity.

While the panto’s playwrights and directors change (Meg Roe directs this year), Veda Hille has written the music and lyrics from the beginning – creating hilarious and catchy parody songs that fit the plot. For instance, in her East Van-set rendition of the Spice Girls’s Wannabe, “ally” replaces “lover” (“if you want to be my ally ...”). Hille usually performs the music, too, but this year Ben Elliott, another giant local talent, is behind the keyboard as musical director.

The cast is fantastic. Dawn Petten, a panto veteran (this is her sixth) stars as Alice. Petten is panto perfection: goofy, genuine, childlike (her age is a running joke) and masterful. Newcomer Ghazal Azarbad rocks it as the evil Jess Cheetos. I also have to mention Mark Chavez, who had me in stitches all night as the sycophantic Duchess and the Mad Hatter. (He has also written three previous pantos: Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and last year’s streamed show, Panto Come Home!)

Each year the panto also features students from Langara College’s theatre school Studio 58 and a rotating cast of local children.

In the show’s conclusion, we hear from some real-life kids – who are ready to take on the world, even if this world has failed them in so many ways. If you are left unmoved and uninspired by this sequence, well, I don’t want to know you.

There is a chemistry to the East Van Panto that transcends description. It is of this community – which happens to be where I live – but it has created a community of its own. Cultch executive director Heather Redfern said on opening night that 16,000 people will see the panto this year. The East Van Panto has become its own thing, far removed from its British roots. It is the silliest, most wonderful of traditions. And for me, it has become essential.

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