Patti Allan, Allan Zinyk, Maiko Bae Yamamoto, Dawn Petten

After a hiatus of about 35+ years, it felt so good to be back inside the York Theatre and to be among the first to witness the premier production Jack and the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto.

The newly-renovated interior bears faint resemblance to the tired, threadbare box that I witnessed a young Pia Shandel passionately rail against the injustice capitalism inflicts on the weak and disadvantaged. The play was Red Emma (Goldman), Queen of the Anarchists, and Ms. Shandel was altogether convincing in her delivery. If memory serves, Dave Barrett was still the premier and the east side of Vancouver was to be ground zero for the worker’s paradise just around the corner.

While the revolution of the proletariat and Ms. Shandel somehow got sidelined/co-opted, the restoration of the York as a live theatre did not. From the time the live theatre went dark, to be repurposed as a punk music venue, later an east Indian movie house, folk like Tom Durrie and his Save the York Theatre Society envisioned the 1913-built structure again complementing the Drive’s cultural scene in a meaningful way. That the building was spared from the wrecking ball was something of a miracle.

A miracle of a different sort drives the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. In this 100-minute (including intermission) retelling of the classic tale, young Jack (Maiko Bae Yamamoto) and his impoverished single mom are eking out a living in a run-down East Van apartment.

Allan Zinyk, Maiko Bae Yamamoto, Raugi Yu, Dawn Petten, Patti Allan
[Allan Zinyk, Maiko Bae Yamamoto, Raugi Yu, Dawn Petten, Patti Allan]

With food in short supply, they are relegated to fashioning dust bunnies into semblances of appetizers for their nutrition. A bit later, Jack is hoodwinked into exchanging the only family asset, a cow, for three “magic” beans. From these seeds, a stalk grows to the sky where a giant couple reside. Jack climbs the stalk and after a series of adventures comes home with a gold-egg-laying chicken. Financial problems solved, the curtain comes down on a high note.

What distinguishes this production from traditional versions is its topicality to things East Van. Playwright Charles Demers references everything from grow-ops, backyard chicken coops, the gay community, rendering plant reek, farmers markets, the WISE Hall, the Number 20 bus and much more throughout. The invasive beanstalk as a metaphor for condo development was apt and clever. One can easily start feeling the vibe of being at home.

Happily, the audience participation conventions of panto were incorporated into the script right from the get-go. The instigating “oh no it’s not/oh yes it is” response seemed to be most effective. That said, kids of all ages will find much to relate to and chortle over. Youngsters liked the fart jokes, the young-at-heart were amused by the just-beneath-the-surface subversive sentiment that life isn’t particularly fair nor just.

Allan Zinyk, Raugi Yu, Maiko Bae Yamamoto
[Allan Zinyk, Raugi Yu, Maiko Bae Yamamoto]

What made the performance special for me was much of the theatricality of the presentation. I thought that Itai Erdal’s lighting design made the whole show seem indeed magical. A couple of Scenic Illustrator Laura Zerebski’s big, colourful, scenic backdrops were so well executed that they would not be out of place hanging in the Vancouver Art Gallery.

As with most pantos, well-known tunes make up the majority of the musical score. Lyrics are altered to fit the narrative: Somewhere Over The Rainbow becomes an equally wistful and endearing Somewhere West of Cambie. Original intro and finale songs provided by Musical Director/one-woman-orchestra Veda Hille are highlights to some other indifferent selections that seem to be inserted to kill time during costume changes.  

For the most part, the panto is played with all the sophistication of a circus clown act. None of the five cast members was really stretched by the show but all gave good accounts of themselves while mostly performing multiple characters. If I had to pick a standout it would have to be Allan Zinyk in his incarnation as Jack’s mom. While the other characters were mostly superficial or cartoon-like, Mr. Zinyk seemed to be able to infuse his interpretation with a dollop of pathos that made Jack’s mom both sympathetic and real; he also plays Mr. Giant in this production.

The world as we know it will not be changing as a result of this production. What will be changing for many will be the perception and the realization that East Van has more heart and soul than it did one week ago.

Jack and the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto continues through December 29 at the York Theatre.

All photos by Emily Cooper.

About Our Contributor Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini enjoys Vancouver's vibrant theatre scene and has taken in many productions over the years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University. Larry is financially involved with the film Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Josh Epstein, directed by Kyle Rideout, and starring Michael Eklund.

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