Members of the cast of the Theatre Replacement production of East Van Panto: Pinocchio. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Members of the cast of the Theatre Replacement production of East Van Panto: Pinocchio. Photo by Emily Cooper.

I have a confession to make. Despite the East Van Panto making an appearance at The Cultch’s York Theatre for the past six years, I have never been. While it’s easy to make excuses given how busy the holiday season can be for the arts in Vancouver, the reality is pantos have never been high on my list of theatrical genres. It’s not that Vancouver Presents hasn’t covered the annual show in the past, but as its editor, I’ve asked our other contributors to review previous versions.

This year, I decided to put my preferences aside to take in Theatre Replacement’s latest panto creation, Pinocchio. And I cannot tell a lie. I had a great deal of fun. It also opened me up to the possibilities of what a panto can be. And since I am unable to make any comparisons to past East Van Pantos, I was also able to watch it without the additional bias that can come from having seen previous versions.

As written by Marcus Youssef, this version of Pinocchio is a mash-up of Carlo Collodi’s original story and the 1940 Disney animated film, with a definite emphasis on the latter. As is the East Van Panto tradition, though, this story of the wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy takes place primarily in East Vancouver. It makes for some hilarious local references. Don’t worry, even when the jokes go hyper-local, those in the audience who are not from the neighbourhood don’t get left behind.

In Youssef’s version, Pinocchio’s woodworking father Geppeto becomes ice-cream salesman Gelato. Selling his environmentally friendly ice-cream that includes some very questionable ingredients, it is both an excuse to get the audience into the panto spirit by eliciting choruses of “eww,” and giving just enough gross-out fun for the younger set.

And yes, be prepared because there are fart jokes too. But big kids in the audience don’t have to worry because, like the best-animated films out there, this Pinocchio story works for both adults and children alike.

For anyone who hasn’t attended a panto before, audience participation is very much encouraged. Taking time to explain how we can become part of the action, we’re encouraged to boo and cheer, and even warn characters to watch their backs. Trust me. If you go with it, the reward is ten-fold.

While the original story has the Blue Fairy promising Pinocchio he will become a real boy if he can prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish, in Yousef’s version, the Fairy Instagram Mother challenges him to accumulate 100,000 Instagram followers before his wish can come true.

While on the surface, the two motivations may seem at odds, Youssef’s modern retelling is both more relatable and definitely more current. And while I don’t want to give away too much of Pinocchio’s journey, and definitely not the ending, suffice to say the two versions have more in common than you might think.

Along with its professional cast, East Van Panto: Pinocchio also features a rotating group of "Panto Kids". Photo by Emily Cooper.
Alongside its professional cast, East Van Panto: Pinocchio also features a rotating group of “Panto Kids.” Photo by Emily Cooper.

Under the direction of Stephen Drover is an ensemble having the time of their lives. And even when the energy level dips (they are after all performing nine shows a week), their evident love for the material is infectious.

Leading the way is a delightful performance by Pippa Mackie in the title role. Reminding my theatre companion of Ellie Kemper, she brings the heart to the show while having great fun with Veda Hille’s reworked versions of songs like Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings.

Shawn Macdonald continues to surprise as both Gelato with one of the best songs of the night with a spot-on parody of Andrea Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye and delivers equally in drag as the villainous Foxy Cabaret.

One of several triple-threats in the cast and riding a hoverboard no less, Chirag Naik is dazzling in a pink wig and knee-high purple patent-leather boots courtesy of costume designer Barbara Clayden. He does a pretty good job as crooner Michael Bublé too, one of only a few “real-life” characters who make an appearance.

Amanda Sum brings a delightful contrast between Pinocchio’s “conscience consultant” Jiminy Pattison (in this version, Jiminy Cricket is based on the Vancouver mega-billionaire but with four arms thanks to Clayden’s costume) and that of the surprise villain in act two. Her energetic version of Billie Elish’s Bad Guy, thanks largely to Amanda Testini’s choreography, is a highlight.

While she doesn’t get as much stage time as she deserves, Naomi Wright is no less terrific in her primary role as the hippie Commercial Drive businesswoman who doesn’t particularly like customers.

Rounding out the ensemble comes solid support from Ivy Charles, Nicholas Elia, and Emma Ross. They are helped out by a rotating group of “Panto Kids” who require no prompting to “ooh” and “aww” each time they make an appearance.

A great deal of fun for both adults and kids, I’m just sorry I waited seven years before seeing my first East Van Panto. As a result, I may never look at a panto quite the same way ever again.

East Van Panto: Pinocchio by Marcus Youssef with music, lyrics and musical direction by Veda Hille. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Cultch presentation of a Theatre Replacement production. On stage at the York Theatre in East Vancouver (duh!) until January 5. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.