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From left: Amanda Sum, Dawn Petten and Donna Soares.

  • Title: Panto Come Home!
  • Written by: Mark Chavez
  • Composer/musical director: Veda Hille
  • Directors: Maiko Yamamoto and James Long
  • Cast: Dawn Petten, Donna Soares, Amanda Sum, Shawn Macdonald, Mark Chavez, Maiko Yamamoto and James Long
  • Company: Theatre Replacement
  • Venue: Streaming from The York Theatre
  • City: Vancouver

This year’s East Van Panto production opens with co-stars James Long and Maiko Yamamoto sneaking onto the stage of Vancouver’s York Theatre, two metres apart. “It’s so dark in here,” the show begins.

“Get out of my head!” I yelled at the TV, just after 7 p.m. on Friday night. My 12-year-old shushed me.

I don’t have many holiday traditions, but this is one of them: I have seen every East Van Panto since it was first staged in 2013 and it’s something I always look forward to; it’s never a drag. Interactive, silly and smart, it is a highlight of my every December.

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In the English pantomime tradition, each year the production takes a well-known, child-friendly story – Jack and the Beanstock, Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz and so on – and adjusts it to add topical and hyper-local references along with audience participation to create a holiday show that works for both children and adults.

This year, like everything else, the tradition has undergone a pandemic-era transformation. Rather than crowd into Vancouver’s lovely York Theatre with its sliver of a lobby and intimate auditorium, we logged in through e-mail, managed to mirror my screen to the TV and watched Panto Come Home! from the couch, livestreamed from the York a few blocks away.

This year’s Panto is a best-of, a review featuring medleys of previous Panto hits – glorious parodies of songs by artists from Led Zeppelin to Lady Gaga, written by local musical genius Veda Hille. It’s all very loosely framed in a COVID-era story. A Pando Panto, you might call it.

From left: Donna Soares, Mark Chavez and Amanda Sum.

As Long and Yamamoto (who co-created and also direct the show) enter the stage in the dark, they find Hille wearing a bathrobe behind a wall of plexiglass, slumped over her keyboard, depressed at the state of things. She launches into a corona-version of Don’t Cry Out Loud. “Baby cried the day the virus came to town,” she croons. Long and Yamamoto decide to cheer up Hille by rounding up some former Panto stars to sing the old hits.

“You might recognize me from East Van Panto Colon Cinderella,” says Donna Soares as she takes the stage in a costume from the 2014 Panto.

But things take a turn when the Phantom of the Panto – shortened to the Phanto of the Panto – shows up (creating an opening to poke fun at a much-debated work of Vancouver public art, Rodney Graham’s Spinning Chandelier). The Phanto has seen every single East Van Panto performance. And he has opinions.

I won’t say much more, because the surprises are part of the fun, but it was great to hear some of our old favourite songs, Rudolph the Average Reindeer and Somewhere Just East of Main Street (instead of “over the rainbow”) among them. There were some pandemic alterations and a few new tunes as well. Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a physically distanced stage fight.

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The cast is terrific – performing masked and two metres apart. Dawn Petten in particular is a standout. And the camera work is great; this is not just a static experience.

One upside of the pandemic is you don’t have to be in Vancouver to see the Panto this year, since it can stream anywhere. Although you might want to have an East Van phone-a-friend plan in place to explain local in-jokes, such as Beckwoman’s, perhaps the weirdest store on Commercial Drive (and that’s saying something) – and a major plot point in a previous Panto. I laughed at the reference, but it was also a sad reminder: Beckwoman’s has not survived the pandemic.

As we feel our way – safely and physically distantly – through the darkness of this time, these little bright twists on tradition are a reminder of all we had, all we still have, and all we have to look forward to. The Panto has been a bright spot for me; has always felt like home. On Friday, during the Panto’s traditional Silent Night singalong, I teared up, as I always do, at one particular line: when “Sleep in Heavenly Peace” is altered to “East Vancouver my home.”

All is not calm, all is not bright. But a fun night at the theatre at home can be a saviour.

Panto Come Home! streams Dec. 19-27 thecultch.com

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