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Vancouver Theatre: Some Presents, Some Coal This Holiday Season

12/15/2014 07:44 EST | Updated 02/14/2015 05:59 EST

The festive season is always marked by a plethora of stage offerings. Here are capsule reviews of four them.

"A Twisted Christmas Carol" is a treat from the Arts Club. The tale of Scrooge and the ghosts features an excellent cast of improv actors. The production is only partly scripted, with numerous story elements provided by the audience. A cast of five plays all the roles in the classic story. Gary Jones is a standout as Scrooge. Because of an audience suggestion the night we attended, Scrooge is in the business of clowning. Bill Pozzobon, a fine Bob Cratchit, displays his excellent mime skills as he (clown-like) pretends to ride a tiny tricycle.

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The cast of the Arts Club's "A Twisted Christmas Carol" (Photo credit: David Cooper)

Diana Frances is the funniest member of the cast. As Mrs. Cratchit, she asks a vegetarian audience member what her family eats for Christmas dinner. "Squash" is the answer, and the winter vegetable becomes the subject of a hilarious cooking scene. Frances also plays Scrooge's first love, Belle. The audience provides Belle with a surprising emotion: anger. Frances is delightful as she weaves unexpected rage into her love scene.

The English pantomime gets a local twist in "Cinderella: An East Van Panto" by Theatre Replacement. This clever and always-entertaining musical is politically sharp (unapologetically left-wing) with a perfect tone of mock self-deprecation. This heavily-altered children's classic (adapted by Charles Demers) entertains the whole family with humour addressed to kids and other jokes just for the grown-ups. Veda Hille writes passable original tunes but performs them with zest.

The superb star is the always-funny Allan Zinyk as the wicked Stepmother and Ronald Grump, the billionaire who throws the ball. Two costumes by Marina Szijarto almost steal the show: a pipeline that is so long it must be worn by three actors, and the large boat worn by the BC Ferry Godmother (James Long). Cinderella (the marvelous Donna Soares) manages to find the ball anyway, courtesy of a pumpkin that transforms into a SkyTrain.

A mediocre effort arrives from Pacific Theatre with the sentimental tale "It's A Wonderful Life." This version of the story ("It's a Wonderful Life Radio Show") is told as if the film were now a radio drama and we are in a radio studio watching the performers broadcast the show. Forties-style microphones litter a set that is arranged with a corner devoted entirely to sound-effects equipment and a piano. Joel Stephanson is great on piano and equally good at shattering glass and making other noises.

Unfortunately, the many young cast members are asked to carry more than they can. Some don't play age very well and others struggle to make their numerous characters distinct from one another. An exception is the experienced performer Aaron Nelken as Mr. Potter, Martini, and Mr. Gower (among other characters). His accents are right and his demeanor distinct. Matthew Simmons is good as the radio announcer and is excellent in the very different role of Uncle Billy. A note in the program indicates the production was rehearsed in only six days. This curiosity likely explains all the line flubbing that plagues the show.

Oh, if only a giant peach were not such a boring way to travel. In "James and the Giant Peach," the season's musical offering from Carousel Theatre for Young People, the first act succeeds because the two cruel aunts are just so darn funny. The slapstick team of Patti Allan and Deb Williams as Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge provides is wholly original but reminiscent of "Absolutely Fabulous." They are perfect Roald Dahl villains, child-hating and selfish.

The team really sells those middling songs by the American team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. When it comes to the main story, however, the book (by Timothy Allen McDonald) is no good. The show just falls apart in the second act. The songs are repetitious and boring; the drama, set on the floating peach, is poorly devised. You start wishing the fuzzy raft would sink already, or Allan and Williams would reappear (which, hooray, they finally do). Well directed by Carole Higgins.

The Carousel cast is excellent, including Scott Bellis as Centipede and Jonathan Winsby as Earthworm. Julian Lokash, as James, has a delightful stage presence and a beautiful singing voice. He brings great charm to "James and the Giant Peach."

What you need to know:

"A Twisted Christmas Carol," originally produced by Rock Paper Scissors, based on the novel by Charles Dickens and an idea by David C. Jones, at The Arts Club Revue Theatre in Vancouver until Dec. 27. Buy tickets here.

"Cinderella: An East Van Panto," written by Charles Demers, music by Veda Hille, directed by Amiel Gladstone, produced by Theatre Replacement, at the York Theatre in Vancouver until Dec. 28. Buy tickets here.

"It's a Wonderful Life Radio Show" by Peter Church, directed by Sarah Rodgers, at the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver until Dec. 30. Buy tickets here.

"James and the Giant Peach," book by Timothy Allen McDonald, words and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on the book by Roald Dahl, directed by Carole Higgins, at the Carousel Theatre for Young People at the Waterfront Theatre in Vancouver until Jan. 4. Buy tickets here.