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.

Top 10 theatre 2016

Hope everyone’s been enjoying the holiday season. As we say goodbye to 2016 (for better or worse), it’s time for the annual top 10 theatre list. As usual, this is always a challenging endeavour, so I’ve added a few honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Top 10 theatre 2016

Blind Date (queer version): Spontaneous Theatre & Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Chasse-Galerie: Kabin, Storefront Theatre & Soulpepper

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen: Theatre 20, The Firehall Arts Centre & Theatre Passe Muraille

The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy: Eldritch Theatre

The Hogtown Experience: The Hogtown Collective & Campbell House Museum

Late Night: Theatre Brouhaha & Zoomer LIVE Theatre

Mouthpiece: Quote Unquote Collective & Nightwood Theatre

The Queen’s Conjuror: Circlesnake Productions

She Mami Wata and the Pussy Witchhunt: The Watah Theatre

The Summoned: Tarragon Theatre

Honourable mention

The Clergy Project:  SOULO Theatre

Killer Joe: Coal Mine Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew: Driftwood Theatre Group

Three Men in a Boat: Pea Green Theatre

Up next: The Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), running January 4 – 15, 2017 at Factory Theatre.

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in delightful It’s A Wonderful Life

Soulpepper added an extra bit of cheer to its holiday programming this year with its production of Philip Grecian’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, directed by Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz, assisted by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, and opening to a packed house at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre last night.

Set as a 1940s radio play performed on stage—with the actors playing actors playing characters in the story—this version of It’s A Wonderful Life gives us all the favourite moments of the film version, including the dialogue, with the added fun of a behind-the-scenes look at some fabulous Foley (sound effects) work, designed by John Gzowski. And last night, we had the added treat of a charming performance of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from the Dixon Hall Music School children’s choir.

George Bailey (Gregory Prest) has spent his entire life helping others in his small town. As a kid (Richie Lawrence) he saved his kid brother Harry (Christef Desir) and after school employer, pharmacist Mr. Gower (Diego Matamoros). And as an adult, he sacrificed college and travel to save the family building and loan business from falling into the hands of the corrupt and wealthy Mr. Potter (Matamoros). All so the hard-working, struggling folks of Bedford Falls could have a fair chance at a decent home.

Challenges aside, he’s got a pretty good life, with a lovely, supportive wife Mary (Raquel Duffy) and four sweet kids (Daniel Mousseau, Thea Lapham, Michelle Monteith and Richie Lawrence). Until one Christmas Eve Day, a banking mistake made by his absent-minded uncle Billy (William Webster) threatens to cost him everything. And in his most desperate hour, his guardian angel Clarence (Oliver Dennis) appears and sets out to show him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis & Derek Boyes – all photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

This production truly captures the spirit of this beloved holiday classic, and then some. In true radio broadcast style, the show features live commercial spots shouting out Soulpepper’s corporate sponsors and other holiday program offering, with live piano accompaniment (James Smith of Chasse-Galerie). But the biggest fun of all has to be the Foley artistry, featuring Christef Desir, Daniel Mousseau and Marcel Stewart as the soundmen (operating a neat assortment of sound-making props and gadgets, and playing multiple characters as well); with the entire ensemble creating various sound effects vocally. And at the end of Act I, aptly staged during George and Mary’s honeymoon scene, the stage goes to black as the scene continues, with lights on the vintage radio down stage left—giving us a taste of the radio drama experience.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Christef Desir & Michelle Fisk, with Marcel Stewart & Ellie Moon in the background

Exceptional work from this cast. Stand-outs include Prest, who brings a good-natured authenticity to George Bailey, an everyman performing everyday acts of heroism; there’s really nice chemistry with Duffy’s Mary, George’s warm but feisty perfect match. Matamoros delivers some delicious voice work, from the velvet smooth tones of the announcer, to the gravel-voiced Mr. Gower, to the malevolent, grasping villain Mr. Potter. And Dennis is adorably quaint as the underdog Angel Second Class Clarence, determined to earn his wings.

Monteith brings some great vocal chops and range, going from the slinky town party girl Violet, to the too cute for words Zuzu (George’s youngest daughter, famous for Zuzu’s petals); and Mousseau is a delight as Martini, the owner of one of the town’s favourite restaurants. And shouts to kid actors Lapham (Young Mary and George’s daughter Janie) and Lawrence (Young George and George’s son Tommy).

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in Soulpepper’s delightful 1940s radio play production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

It’s A Wonderful Life continues the Bluma Appel Theatre—and, good news, it’s been extended to December 31. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the behind-the-scenes video for a peek at the fun in store:

And while you’re at it, check out some of Soulpepper’s other holiday treats, including its annual production of A Christmas Carol and the Family Festival programming. Here’s hoping that It’s A Wonderful Life becomes an additional holiday tradition at Soulpepper.

The Devil went down to Old Montreal in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie

chasse-galerie-01
Nicole Power, Kat Letwin, Hunter Cardinal, Tyrone Savage, Michael Cox, Tess Benger, Shaina Silver-Baird, Ghazal Azarbad & Alicia Toner in Chasse-Galerie – photo by John Gundy

Soulpepper opened the Kabin/Storefront Theatre production of Chasse-Galerie to a delighted full house at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District last night. With book adapted by director Tyrone Savage, assisted by Janet Laine-Green; music and lyrics by musical director James Smith; and choreography by Ashleigh Powell, Chasse-Galerie is a big fun, immersive, multimedia adventure that twists, turns and entertains.

When we enter the theatre, we find ourselves in the Flying Canoe pub on New Year’s Eve, greeted by members of the band/cast and availed of bar service – when our narrator Lucy (Ghazal Azarbad) emerges to tell us a tale of the Chasse-Galerie, a folk tale of a wild hunt in which those caught up in its path join the hunt forever.

On another New Year’s Eve, four coureuses des bois (i.e., female lumberjacks) are cold, exhausted and nearly out of whiskey. Alex (Tess Benger) longs to see her sweetheart, the lovely golden-haired fiddle player Jaune; Lea (Nicole Power) misses her red-headed whiskey maker Michel-Paul; coincidentally, so does Michelle (Kat Letwin); and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird) doesn’t have someone special, but pines for music and romance. Fondly remembering their favourite Old Montreal pub, The Flying Canoe, the four women are dying for a road trip. There’s just one problem: it’s a three-day trek.

Enter Damien (Tyrone Savage), disguised as a weary frozen stranger, who offers them a way to get their wish and travel to the pub in hours. But his magic comes with conditions and a price: they must not swear or touch a cross, and they must be back by dawn. If not, their souls belong to him.

The women agree to his terms and travel by magic flying canoe to Old Montreal; convinced they’ll be fine as long as they don’t drink – especially Michelle, who has the biggest potty mouth of them all. Alex sets off in search of Jaune (Alicia Toner), and Michelle finds the lusty Michel-Paul (Michael Cox) before Lea does. And Toba becomes smitten with the bashful band leader Francois (James Smith), who is equally taken with her and gives her a fiddle lesson. Meanwhile, Lea meets a handsome cowboy who speaks in Shakespearian verse (the angel Uriel in disguise, played by Hunter Cardinal). To ensure that he reaps those four souls, Damien enlists Lucy’s assistance to foil our four heroines at every turn.

All hell breaks loose in the pub and dawn is fast approaching. When all seems lost, Toba challenges Damien to a fiddle duel to save her friends. And you won’t believe what happens next!

Incorporating animation, puppetry, songs and folk dance – not to mention a butt load of Québécois swears, including a very catchy audience participation tune at the end of Act I – Chasse-Galerie is one big fun musical ride of adventure and friendship, featuring performances from an outstanding multi-talented cast. Everyone sings and everyone plays an instrument (in Smith’s case, more than one); the excellent band is rounded out by Justin Han (drums) and Jason O’Brien (bass).

Benger’s Alex is sweet and pious; she may be a virgin, but Alex is full of fierce passion and love for her Jaune. Letwin is hilariously irreverent as Michelle; hard-drinking and a master at cursing there’s a soft gooey centre beneath that tough exterior. Power’s bespectacled Lea is the level-headed brains of the group; and when she finds herself struggling with the prospect of lost love, she gets some unique advice from Uriel about what to do about her love triangle situation. Silver-Baird’s Toba is the peacemaker of the group; not expecting to find love at The Flying Canoe, she is put in the difficult position of choosing between her dream and making it home on time to save her own soul and those of her friends.

Savage is deliciously diabolical as Damien; comic and compelling, Damien’s dead serious when it comes to this deal – and he needs these souls as much as the four women want to keep them. Azarbad is cabaret sexy and delightfully mischievous as Lucy; our storytelling host and Damien’s right-hand minion, she excels at manipulation and even gets on a bit of romancin’ of her own.

With huge shouts to the design team for this remarkable, immersive environment: Lindsay Dagger Junkin (set and props), John Leberg (scenic magic), Holly Lloyd (costumes), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Andre Stankovic (sound) and Daniel Briere (projection and puppetry).

The Devil went down to Old Montreal. A singin’, dancin’, whiskey drinkin’ helluva good time in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie.

Chasse-Galerie continues the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. it won’t be there forever though – so what are you waiting for?

Update (Nov 17): The run of Chasse-Galerie has been extended, with new shows just added:

  • Tuesday, Nov. 29 – 8:00pm
  • Wednesday, Nov. 30 – 8:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 7:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 10:30pm

Get a sneak peek in the behind-the-scenes video:

Big rollicking fun & magic @ You Can’t Take It With You

I want to go live with the Sycamore family.

Some big magical fun at the Young Centre last night when I went to see Soulpepper’s production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, directed by Joseph Ziegler, where we spend a few days in the family’s living/dining room witnessing the comings and goings of various family members, friends and even prospective in-laws in this rollicking circus of a household.

Set in the late 30s, the living/dining area of the Sycamore home is surprisingly neat, considering all the various pursuits and work going on in the house. Mom Penny (Nancy Palk) has been turning her hand to playwriting of late – this after giving up painting – with several scripts in progress, moving from one to another when she gets writer’s block. Dad Paul (Derek Boyes) plays with Meccano erector sets in his spare time, and designs and creates fireworks in the basement with friend/colleague Mr. De Pinna (Michael Simpson), an child-like unmarried chap, formerly the ice man who came into the house eight years ago and never left. Daughter Essie (Patricia Fagan) works at home as a candy maker and is an aspiring ballet dancer, but not particularly good at it after eight years of studying with Mr. Kolenkhov (Diego Matamoros), while her husband Ed (Mike Ross) who delivers the candy, accompanies her dancing on the xylophone and enjoys printing things – everything from the family’s dinner menu to phrases that catch his fancy. Daughter Alice (Krystin Pellerin), the most conventional member of the family, works at an office, where she meets and falls in love with Tony (Gregory Prest), the boss’s son. Grandpa (Eric Peterson) decided to quit the rat race 35 years ago and has been having loads of fun ever since attending circuses and commencements, playing darts, collecting stamps and caring for his snakes. In addition to the family members are Rheba (Sabryn Rock), the Sycamores’ maid/cook, and her boyfriend Donald (Andre Sills), the handyman – who in their way are both family as well.

Tony and Alice want to get married, but Alice is worried that her unconventional family won’t fit in with prospective – wealthy and conservative – in-laws Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (John Jarvis and Brenda Robins). And her nightmare comes true when Tony brings the folks over a day early for dinner and, despite her family’s support of the match and wanting to make a good impression, all hell breaks loose.

Kaufman and Moss have written a highly entertaining piece about family, acceptance and finding your bliss. Do what you love even if you’re not particularly good at it – as long as you’re getting a kick out of it, it’s all good. Like Grandpa says of money and position: “You can’t take it with you,” so you may as well relax and enjoy yourself – a very forward-thinking notion for the time.

A thoroughly charming play, with lovely performances all around. I especially enjoyed Peterson, an audience favourite who gives us a brilliantly funny and real performance as Grandpa, commenting on the household goings-on and calling folks on their silliness, his pre-dinner grace more like a state-of-the-union chat with God. Additional cast include some fun turns from Raquel Duffy as a drunken actress who comes to read for Penny, Maria Vacratsis as a displaced Russian royal now working as a waitress, and Brian Bisson and Tim Ziegler as the G-men who raid the Sycamore’s dinner party (with Ziegler also playing Henderson, the IRS man who comes to see Grandpa about his unpaid income taxes).

You Can’t Take It With You closes tonight – check out the ticket status and you might be able to squeeze in: http://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/12_season/you_can%27t_take_it_with_you.aspx

Theatre & music – upcoming adventures

Busy week for this bloggergal, chickens. Here’s a peek at what I’ll be up to:

Atic Productions has a short run of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? opening at the Tarragon Extra Space tonight and running until June 24. This production was directed by Carter West, and features actors Benjamin Blais, Ben Hayward, Rosemary Doyle and Tim Walker. I’ll be wandering over on Friday. For info: http://aticproductions.com/

I’ll finally be going to see Soulpepper’s production of You Can’t Take It With You tomorrow night – better late than never. Here’s the scoop on that show: http://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/12_season/you_can%27t_take_it_with_you.aspx

Saturday will be a music night out with my gals Kat Leonard and Lizzie Violet – this time, at the Horseshoe Tavern to see Tin Star Orphans. Check them out here: http://www.tinstarorphans.com/

This means I’ll be rolling out the bloggage on these the next day. Whew!

So – what are you up to this week?

Kim’s Convenience a pleasure the second time around

So after not getting on top of the ticket ordering in time to see its previous Soulpepper run, I finally got out to see Kim’s Convenience at the Young Centre last night. And this time, I took two pals Kerri and Ty along for the ride.

Weyni Mengesha directed the Soulpepper run (playwright/actor Ins Choi directed for Toronto Fringe run last year) with most of the same cast from the Fringe premiere, with the exception of Clé Bennett, appearing on stage for the first time (well, since high school), who took on the role of Alex and various other characters. Once again, this outstanding cast gave us a truly funny, poignant and real performance. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is brilliant as Mr. Kim (aka Appa) – bringing us a stoic, stubborn, hard-working man with a quick temper and sharp wit – not to mention awesome martial arts skills – and a sweet guy under the gruff veneer. Jean Yoon returns as Mrs. Kim (Umma), creating a wife and mother who is tiny in stature but big on love, strength and support – and do not piss her off. Lee and Yoon have lovely, tender moments as husband and wife, speaking to each other in Korean during private moments – and in the context of the scene, understandable to everyone in the audience. Other favourite exchanges are between Kim and his daughter Janet (Esther Jun), at times hilarious – from their quick-fire banter to Kim’s imparting his “steal” or “no steal” theory – to combative and intensely fond. Jun is a fun-loving spitfire as Janet, a 30-year-old single gal living at home with her parents and an aspiring photographer, is smart, funny and itching to get out of the store and have a life, but she loves her family dearly despite the generational and cultural differences with her folks. Clé Bennett does an excellent job of juggling four very different characters, including the cop Alex, a childhood friend of Jung’s who now sees his friend’s kid sister Janet with a man’s eyes – and likes what he sees – giving us a nice combo of good-humour and shy suiter. Choi reprises his role as Jung, the son who at first is only spoken of in terms of his troubled teen years and an incident involving his father before he left home at 16. We see him for the first time meeting his mother, in secret, at the family’s local Korean church, a church that is closing due to condo development in the neighbourhood – the same evolution that Kim faces when he is offered a buy-out for the store from a developer. Choi brings a nicely rounded prodigal son tempered by feelings of nostalgia – and a sense of pain regarding the separation from his birth family and disillusionment with his own life and family.

Seeing Kim’s Convenience a second time (I saw it during its Toronto Fringe run last year) was a pleasure – and I got to relive my favourite moments with the Kim family, with two members of my chosen family, who were both seeing it for the first time. And that’s always cool too – watching the reactions of folks who are visiting Kim’s Convenience for the first time.

The run has been extended to July 4 – please visit the website for dates and reservations: http://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/12_season/kim%27s_convenience.aspx

Next up, Kim’s Convenience goes to The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario for a run Jan 15 – Feb 3, 2013: http://www.grandtheatre.com/index.php/mainstage-theatre/2012-13-mainstage-season/kims-convenience/  And let’s send out some positive thoughts for a national – and even international – tour.

According to Mr. Kim’s theory of “steal” or “no steal” – I’m a “steal”. And you’ll just have to go see Kim’s Convenience for yourself to see what I’m talking about.