Love, family, forgiveness & legacy—falling in love with Kim’s Convenience over & over again

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Jean Yoon & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Everybody loves Appa. When Paul Sun-Hyung Lee made his entrance as the Kim patriarch (marking his 423rd performance in the role) for Soulpepper Theatre’s remount of Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, the packed house in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre erupted into applause.

I first fell in love with Kim’s Convenience during its sold-out run in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival; arriving super early at the Bathurst Street Theatre (now the Randolph Academy) box office with my 10-play pass in hand (this was before my media accreditation). Then I had the pleasure of seeing Soulpepper’s production in May 2012 and fell in love all over again. I’m also a huge fan of the Canadian Screen Award-nominated TV series on CBC. So I was very happy when I, along with my friend Lizzie (who’d also seen it onstage twice before), had the opportunity to see it again last night.

Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Kim’s Convenience takes us along a day in the life of a mom and pop variety store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. For those familiar with the TV show, there really is a Kim’s Convenience, located at Queen/Sherbourne—and the exterior of the store is used in the show. Unlike the TV series, however, the play is set around 10 years later, with Janet (Rosie Simon) and Jung (Richard Lee)* now in their early 30s. And Appa, who is nearing retirement, starts his day receiving an offer from a local real estate-connected friend Mr. Lee (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) to buy the store; and finds himself considering the future—especially in the face of urban development and neighbourhood gentrification. He and Umma (Jean Yoon) have a big decision to make. Do they sell? And, if they don’t sell, who will take over the store? For Appa, Kim’s Convenience is his story, his legacy.

Janet, still living at home and working as a professional photographer, has no interest in pursuing the family business. And her older brother Jung hasn’t been seen or heard from since he left home at 16—a point that comes up when a police officer named Alex (Rowe) arrives at the store to answer a 911 call Janet made at Appa’s insistence over an illegally parked Japanese-made car. Alex was a friend of Jung’s when they were kids, and they’d since lost touch; and this chance reunion with the Kim family paves the way for an opportunity for Janet, who used to follow him and Jung around like a puppy when they were kids.

Generational clashes of the immigrant parents vs. first generation Canadian children variety emerge. Appa, who was a teacher back in Korea, opened the store and worked seven days a week with no vacations in order to give his family a better life in Canada. Appa’s and Umma’s sacrifices and struggles were all for their children, and things didn’t turn out how they’d hoped. Janet is 30, still single and working in a job that Appa finds questionable. And their hopes for their son were destroyed when an altercation between Appa and Jung turned violent, and Jung left home and never came back. Appa has a temper, evidenced in a fight between him and Janet over what is owed to whom after years of service at the store.

Umma has secretly been staying in touch with Jung, who is still working at a car rental place—a job he hates—and now the father of a two-month-old boy. The two have a poignant and revealing meeting at their local Korean church, where the family sang together at church events; Jung alerting his presence by joining his mother in a beautiful Korean duet. It’s the last downtown Korean church, and it’s closing after the land was sold to developers; the remaining churches are all now in the suburbs. It’s a time of change and upheaval, for the family and the neighbourhood—and everyone has some choices to make about the future. And, in the end, Appa realizes that his story isn’t about the store—it’s about his children.

Such beautiful, solid work from the cast. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has been the only Appa, performing throughout multiple remounts, Canada-wide tours and the TV series; the role was made for him and fits him like a glove. I can’t picture anyone else playing Appa. An outspoken, opinionated man possessing of a sharp mind and an eye for detail, Appa is a keen observer of human nature, with a head full of facts about Korean history and a mouth full of words of condemnation for Japan. Despite his quick temper and abrupt manner, he’s a good man with a cheeky sense of humour; and concerned about the security of his family and community. Yoon, who has been Umma to his Appa on stage and on the small screen, is a perfect match and complement as family matriarch Mrs. Kim. A gentle and devout soul, with the patience of a saint, Umma works behind the scenes of her family life to keep her family safe—even if secretly and from afar, as in the case with Jung.

Simon gives a feisty, energetic performance as Janet, who has the wit to hold her own in mercurial, philosophical—often hilarious—banter with Appa. An independent young woman who can hold her own, she pushes back when her work, which she loves, gets called into question. Richard Lee does a great job mining Jung’s layers of conflict; restless, adrift and now a father himself, regret and longing come to the surface. Like his father, he too must consider the future—for himself and his young family.

Rowe does an awesome job playing four very different characters: store customers Rich (who gets schooled on the difference between ginseng and insam) and Jamaican Mike (who gets schooled on “steal”); the affable and empathetic Mr. Lee; and Alex the cop, who finds himself looking at Janet differently now that they’re both grown up (and gets schooled in courting in a hysterically unusual way by Appa).

It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s genuine. And even though it’s about a Korean Canadian family living in Toronto, the universal themes of love, family, forgiveness and legacy resonate no matter who you are or where you come from. And the standing ovation Kim’s Convenience got last night spoke volumes about the love audiences have for the show.

Kim’s Convenience continues the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre; booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 production trailer:

And while you’re at it, check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on Stageworthy Podcast.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Kim’s Convenience to New York City’s 42nd Street in July.

*Ins Choi will be playing Jung for select performances: Feb 23 at 8pm, Feb 24 at 8pm, and Feb 25 at 2pm and 8pm.

Red Falcon / White Lightning brings it all with tight, fun new EP: INSTANT CLASSICS

rfwl instant classics coverRed Falcon / White Lightning (RF/WL) is Robert Eckert and Jeff D. Elliott. Following up last year’s double CD release Rootsy!!! Rocky!!!! Power!!! Poppy!!!!, the band recently released an EP of new tunes: INSTANT CLASSICS.

I got the scoop behind the evolution of INSTANT CLASSICS from Eckert:

Our latest effort called INSTANT CLASSICS was begun in early January and completed for a soft release at Molly Blooms in Stratford on April 18, 2014. It’s speedy production was recorded with a full band consisting of members Hugh Wilson (guitar, BG vocals), Nelson Sobral (guitar, BG vocals) and Kevin Jagger (drums), as well as Pete Gorman (from Young Doctors In Love) playing keys on every song. Unlike R!!!R!!!!P!!!P!!!!, where Jeff and Rob produced the majority of the sounds, each player’s amazing playing and off-the-cuff creativity lead to so many happy accidents that shaped the attitude and vibe of the EP, solidifying the group as a cohesive band.

And he had this to say about RFWL’s new mission statement:

Red Falcon / White Lightning is like a sparkling cherry-coloured ’67 Cutlass sitting in the garage. People don’t get to see it that often, but the car, with its white racing stripes, stays with them. They talk about the sightings, and listen for the rev of the engine. With a full tank of equal parts Elvis Costello, Josh Homme, AC Newman, Joel Plaskett & James Mercer, RFWL stealthily slips out onto the songwriting superhighway, foot on the gas without plans for pit stops. They’ll be your favourite band you just might never get to see.

First off, I love the radio show device in INSTANT CLASSICS, the band using it as an auditory skeleton of sorts for the record. The first track features a slow contemporary groove and the deep mellow tones of “The Five at 5 with Ollie,” with our host introducing this edition’s feature band RFWL and INSTANT CLASSICS. The tunes kick off with the poppy, optimistic “Out There Somewhere,” then segues into some catchy Brit-pop sounds in “The Worst Thing About Time.” The record then shifts gears into the beautiful, wistful strains of the ballad “Time Has Come (Are We Ready?)” – featuring bittersweet, haunting guitar riffs, a soft drive of percussion and vocal harmonies reflecting the pain of impending transition. Switching over to a more rocky vibe, “Half Shit” becomes trippy and psychedelic towards the end, while “This Day and Age” has a kicky retro vibe and lyrics bemoaning an overwhelming modern-day world. Kicky turns to quirky with the final track “Dark and Deep with Sage Miles,” which starts as a wacky fun interview, with host Sage Miles speaking with cartoonish versions of Rob and Jeff, and ends with the band’s equally whimsical, new keys-driven single “Half Bald.”

With INSTANT CLASSICS, Red Falcon / White Lightning brings tight musicianship, strong vocals and an eclectic range of music – all delivered with a sense of passion and big fun. Catch them live if you can – and check out this record!

In the meantime, you can get a sneak peek at INSTANT CLASSICS on the band’s YouTube video on the making of the record.

You can also find Red Falcon / White Lightning on: CBC, Bandcamp and YouTube.