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vancouverplays review


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— Production photo

By Charles Demers
Theatre Replacement & The Cultch
York Theatre, 639 Commercial Dr.
Dec. 4-29
$18 or 604-261-1363

Christmas season is an appropriate time of year to celebrate a miraculous birth–or in this case a rebirth. In a city whose idea of heritage is a condo or a parking lot or just an empty lot where an old building used to be, the preservation and renovation of a century-old theatre is nothing short of a miracle.

Enter the York. Born in 1913 as the Alcazar Theatre, the modest building on Commercial Drive just south of Hastings served for half a century as home of the Vancouver Little Theatre Association, which re-branded it the York in 1940. A punk club (the New York) in the ’80s, then a Bollywood movie house (the Raja), the place seemed doomed to the wrecking ball until local hero Tom Durrie stepped in. Durrie formed the Save the York Theatre Society in 1981 and for the past thirty years has lobbied ceaselessly to keep the building intact and restore it to its original purpose as a live theatre venue.

With the help of Wall Financial, the late Jim Green and Vancouver city council, the building was purchased, got a makeover, and the York re-opened last week as a brand new 370-seat theatre, programmed and operated by The Cultch. Bless you, gentlemen and ladies, one and all.

An intimate, unpretentious space befitting its east side locale, the York feels like a smaller Stanley. No seat in the orchestra or balcony is very far from the stage. Except for its shockingly small lobby it’s a jewel of a theatre.

The show opening it sparkles, too. Theatre Replacement’s Jack & the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto is such shameless fun it should bring the York at least another century of good karma.

In the English Christmas pantomime tradition the show is built around a fairy tale with an outrageous villain who gets booed, a brave hero who gets cheered, music and song, crossdressing, local references, and unapologetic silliness. Amiel Gladstone directs a rousing production of Charles Demers’ goofy script with plenty of big laughs for little kids and their big-kid parents as well.

The tone is set right from the start by Raugi Yu, playing realtor Ray Nator (“Buy Now, Pay Nator”), who shows us the latest in East Vancouver real estate deals for just under a million bucks, a home as small as a shoebox–because it IS a shoebox. The cast sings the East Van Panto Theme Song (“Everyone is having babies,/We like to vote for Libby Davies”), accompanied on piano by the brilliant Veda Hille, who has adapted a series of classic tunes from Carly Rae Jepsen and Neil Young to Loverboy and the Chicken Dance. Later, to the melody of “Over the Rainbow,” they sing, “Somewhere, just west of Cambie …”

Meanwhile, the kids get to root for plucky young Jack (sweet-voiced Maiko Bae Yamamoto), who is so poor he has to sell Old Mudder Udder, the family cow, a spotty dancing conglomeration of gum-chewing Dawn Petten at the front end and Patti Allan at the back. Jack’s mom (Allan Zinyk in even more outrageous drag than usual) is none too happy at the prospect: “Oh Jack, I haven’t had my hopes dashed like this since the last election!”

Zinyk is hilarious as both mom and the giant that Jack has to outwit when the beans Ray Nator trades him for the cow grow into the huge beanstalk that leads Jack up to the giant’s condo in the sky. There he’ll get the golden egg from Yu’s po-faced chicken (with lots of backyard chicken jokes), and he’ll rescue bizarre John O’Seamus McGregor Somethingwelsh (Petten at her funniest), who is attached to a harp and sings screechy madrigals out of tune. And there’s much, much more.

Visually, the show is an absolute treat. Set designer Pam Johnson has created an impressive beanstalk and a very clever mechanism to show Jack climbing it. Laura Zerebski’s three gorgeous painted backdrops include a wavy Vancouver Special and a penthouse sky view right out of Van Gogh. The costumes are spectacularly colourful and funny. The designer: Cultch Executive Director Heather Redfern. Who knew?

Jack & the Beanstalk is a great family show, a joyous holiday party in a beautiful little temple of culture saved from the wrecking ball. Thanks, Santa.

Jerry Wasserman