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.

NSTF: Opposing forces battle for supremacy in the underworld of audience influence in the diabolically charming Clique Claque

Pea Green Theatre Group brings its own brand of dark period comedy/melodrama with Mark Brownell’s Clique Claque, directed by Sue Miner; running now in the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

Clique Claque takes us to 1880s Paris, where we meet Madame Clothilde, aka the Chef de Claque (Michelle Langille), and her husband Yannick (Robert Clarke), who run a group of professional clappers paid to manipulate audience response to theatrical performances. They can turn a bad play into a smash hit and mediocre actors into stars. Their ingénue employee Clemantine (Thalia Kane) may seem to be the picture of naiveté and innocence, but she’s a veteran of the game; though all is not well for her.

Enter young Victor (Victor Pokinko), a one-time music prodigy and current out of work musician, newly arrived from Canada, and looking for inspiration and a job. The Claque takes him on and he proceeds with his education, and in more ways than one. As he becomes instrumental in the Claque’s plan to overthrow an opposing gang of audience influencers—a group called the Clique, led by mature student Dubosc (Ron Kennell), who brutally heckle bad performances—Victor finds he may be in for more than he bargained for. Ultimately, he must choose between what is true and right, and the bitch goddess Fame.

Incorporating some cheeky but gentle audience participation, Clique Claque is an entertaining and engaging show, featuring a stand-out cast. Langille is mesmerizing as Clothilde, the seductive mistress of manipulation. Good cop to husband Yannick’s decidedly bad cop, she may be the wife in the marriage, but one gets the distinct impression that it’s she who wears the pants. Clarke is the villain you love to hate as devilishly devious, cynical and thuggish as Yannick; he represents the dark, seedy underbelly of the Claque’s endeavours, while Clothilde brings the illusion of respectable professionalism.

As Clemantine, Kane brings some lovely layering and conflict; a young woman of some experience, she knows the harshness of the world too well and feels trapped in the Claque. There’s a lost, wistful sense of longing for something better. Pokinko’s Victor is a great combination of wide-eyed innocent and game lad; disillusioned with the world of art himself, he starts out just wanting to eat, but finds himself seduced by the prospect of money and fame. Kennell’s Dubosc is a sophisticated picture of art and academe. A man with a quick, wry wit and unexpected talents, Dubosc is a fierce crusader with a deep appreciation of the good life and that which is beautiful, especially beautiful young men.

With shouts to Nina Okens for the stunning period costumes.

Opposing forces battle for supremacy in the underworld of audience influence in the diabolically charming Clique Claque.

Clique Claque continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Michelle Langille and Robert Clarke – by Mark Brownell

NSTF: Story time for grown-ups with three solo tales—and one is a big fat lie—in the funny, frank Two Truths & a Lie

Pressgang Theatre serves up some storytelling meets game show fun with Two Truths and a Lie, created by and featuring Graham Isador, Helder Brum and Rhiannon Archer, and directed by Tom Arthur Davis. The action is happening at the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), upstairs in the Factory Theatre Antechamber.

Think you’re good at spotting a tall tale that’s way too unbelievable to be true? Test your skills and enjoy some good times as Archer, Brum and Isador share personal anecdotes. Two of them are telling the truth and one is lying to your face.

Over the course of 30 minutes, each storyteller serves up a hilarious, supposedly true, story of determination, patience and heartache. Each performer has a distinct presence and delivery style. Archer is a high-energy delight and an unapologetically ambitious firecracker in her story. Brum is endearingly self-deprecating and hilariously frank as he takes us on his journey. And Isador has a wry, introspective, edgy energy as he delivers his personal tale of experience and growth. And one lucky audience member has a chance to win a prize if he/she can determine who’s lying.

Storyteller Jillian Welsh will be joining the gang at the end of the run, on Jan 13-15.

Story time for grown-ups with three solo tales—and one is a big fat lie—in the funny, frank Two Truths and a Lie.

Two Truths and a Lie continues in the Factory Theatre Antechamber until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Graham Isador – by Tanja-Tiziana

NSTF: Past & future collide with biting political satire in the hilariously trippy The Death of Mrs. Gandhi & the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy)

Everything but the Bard takes us on a time travelling, feminist political fantasy in Kawa Ada’s The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy). Directed by Ada and overseen by artistic producer Renna Reddie, The Death of Mrs. Gandhi is currently running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace during the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

In 1984, a group of female political heavyweights meet for Indira Gandhi’s funeral: Margaret Thatcher (Elley-Ray Hennessy), Benazir Bhutto (Tennille Read), Imelda Marcos (Nina Lee Aquino) and a young go-getter intern named Kim Campbell (Trenna Keating). When their gathering is interrupted by a mysterious woman named Malala (Ellora Patnaik), they find themselves trapped in a quantum bubble. The new arrival claims to be from 2030, and she has some information and instructions for them to get back to their time and space—and save the world!

Outstanding work from the cast, serving up sharp and darkly funny renderings of these women. Hennessy is hilariously imperious as Thatcher; condescending and imperialist to the core, the Iron Lady has a soft spot for “boyfriend” Ronny Reagan. Read does a lovely job with the ambitious young Bhutto; vain and privileged, she’s a favourite of Thatcher, who’s taken the young leader in waiting under her wing to be her mentor. Aquino gives an LOL turn as Marcos; cluelessly decadent, fancying herself a modern-day Marie Antoinette and crazy like a fox, she’s the penultimate 80s material girl.

Keating is adorkably mousy as the anxious young intern Campbell; super apologetic and deferring to Thatcher in all things, she shows her teeth when she comes to realize that Malala has something important to say. Patnaik gives us a sassy and determined grown-up Malala; brutally honest and ballsy, she stands her ground with this group of impressive, powerful women to fulfill her mission. And she has some startling and unusual ideas to save the future.

Featuring intrigue, espionage, top secret machinations and some wacky new physics, The Death of Mrs. Gandhi lampoons sexism, racism, imperialism and political propaganda.

Past and future collide with biting political satire in the hilariously trippy The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy).

The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy) continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.

Photo: Tennille Read and Elley-Ray Hennessy – by Cylla von Tiedemann

Funny as hell & sh*t gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night

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Kat Letwin & Alon Nashman in Late Night – photos by John Gundy

Moses Znaimer and Kat Sandler have teamed up for Zoomer LIVE Theatre’s inaugural production, the debut of Sandler’s Late Night (winner of Toronto Fringe 24-hour playwriting contest), currently running in ZoomerHall – a new space that will serve as a launch pad for intimate, multi-media indie productions. Located in a Liberty Village complex that’s also home to ZoomerMedia, ZoomerHall is part of ZoomerPlex (70 Jefferson Ave., Toronto), a multi-media production and event space.

Directed by Sandler, and produced in partnership with Theatre Brouhaha, Late Night opened on Thanksgiving weekend; I caught the show last night. As we enter the space, we’re greeted by the painfully shy intern Davey (Michael Misu), and a couple of audience members are invited to ask Marty some pre-programmed questions.

After 22 years hosting The Early Late Show, Marty O’Malley (Alon Nashman) is leaving the chair to young, fresh comic talent Sarah Goldberg (Kat Letwin), with a surprise reveal planned in his final show, broadcast live for the first time in the show’s history.

When the running order of the guests has to be changed, the reveal comes early. And when Sarah makes a joke about her and Marty, all hell breaks loose, exploding on social media and forcing longstanding exec producer Alanna (Maria Vacratsis) into emergency measures to appease a titillated and scandalized audience, and a confused bunch of network execs, pushing Sarah into a co-host position for the remainder of the show.

And when Sarah and Marty crack open Marty’s retirement present and begin chatting with guest Kevin Lee Hicks (Nigel Downer), things get really crazy – and the crazy gets turned up to 11 when Marty’s actress wife Vivienne Lawrence (Rachel Jones) shows up.

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Michael Misu, Maria Vacratsis & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Sandler’s script goes for the jugular, hitting all the nasty facets of show business: ageism, sexism, racism, sizeism, homophobia and the myth of heteronormative, traditional relationships; not to mention sex scandals and the exploitation of disease-battling kids turned celebrities. The main event here is Boomer versus Millennial, and she’s got an outstanding, kick-ass ensemble for this wild and wacky ride – all nicely balancing the funny with the real.

Nashman hits all the notes as Marty; classic inappropriate Boomer white guy, in the tradition of Letterman, O’Malley is magnanimous an even a bit verklempt on camera as he bids farewell to a job he loves. Nashman provides some nice layers of hurt and bitter, as O’Malley’s external calm collapses into rage. As Millennial comic Sarah, Letwin is a natural-born smart-ass; she does a really nice job mining the conflicting emotions of this moment for Sarah, who’s thrilled to be taking over the show and scared to death at the same time. She’s made a name for herself as an unashamed and out there comedienne, and masks her discomfort with an irreverent bravado. Vacratsis is a scary delight as Alanna; a hilarious combination of cheerleader and dragon lady, she’s been with the show for years and will do whatever it takes to keep it alive. Musi is adorkably funny as the socially awkward intern Davey; forced out of his comfort zone on a number of occasions, his reward is the care and feeding of Vivienne, who he goes fan boy gaga over.

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Nigel Downer & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Downer is entertaining and compelling as actor Kevin Lee Hicks; a gay black man who’s come to fame by playing cool grandma Mama Jones (who we also get to meet) on the big screen, Hicks is unapologetic, sharp-witted, resourceful and opportunistic. Jones is both a laugh riot and deeply poignant as Vivienne Lawrence; an actress in her mid-forties now relegated to mom roles, she’s struggling with her career and her marriage, and gutted that her kids get drawn into the gossip about her and Marty.

ZoomerHall is the perfect venue for this production. The studio audience sound stage set takes Late Night beyond site-specific and into immersive theatre, complete with cameras and live video monitors.

Funny as hell and shit gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night. My ass was laughed off. Get yourself on over to ZoomerHall to see this

Late Night continues at ZoomerHall until October 23. Check out show dates and get your advance tix online.

Toronto Fringe: Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical

nickeshia_garrick_and_kyle_holt_brown - echoesWriter/director Andrew Seok “wanted to write a musical about war and its effect on families and relationships” – and he’s done just that, to great effect with Chaos & Light’s production of Echoes – A New Musical, running at Toronto Fringe at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, with music direction and accompaniment by Robert Graham.

Inspired by personal letters and journal entries, and taking us across decades and into a new century, Echoes is divided into three acts, starting with the American Civil War, where fugitive husband (Kyle Holt Brown) and wife (Nickeshia Garrick) slaves are separated when the wife and their daughter (Millie Davis) are captured; when he reaches the north, the husband joins the army to gain his freedom. Act II takes place during WWI, where we see the effects of war on the future of a young captain (Andrew Seok) and his fiancée (Marisa McIntyre). Act III finds us in WWII and a father (Micah Richardson) leaving his daughter (Millie Davis & Amaka Umeh) to serve in the army shortly after her mother has died; ashamed by what he’s doing in the name of duty, he constantly breaks his promise to return home to his daughter until years later. The common, running thread throughout all of these stories is the courier (beautifully performed by Jeff Madden), delivering and receiving letters for delivery – and wondering about the reasons for it all.

The score is filled with gorgeous, heart-wrenching ballads, with some dark comic relief (performed by a pair of scoundrels played by Hart Massey and Christopher Sawchyn – “The Treaty” and “We’ll Be Back”). Stand-outs include “Demons & Angels,” “Angels Won’t Sleep Tonight” and “All the Things that Life Used to Know.” And “Hymn,” the gospel-inspired finale lead by Nickeshia Garrick is a perfect way to end this piece in that it reminds us of the better angels within us all.

I’ve seen several standing ovations over the course of Fringe this year, but none so unanimous as the one the Echoes cast received last night.

Out of the echoes of pain and loss comes a beautiful noise that reminds us what we could be in the powerful, moving Echoes – A New Musical.

Echoes – A New Musical has one final performance at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity St. Paul’s: tonight (Sat, July 9) at 8:00 p.m. They’re sold out, but there may be a few stray tickets at the door.

Toronto Fringe: Coming out in 1977 in the funny, touching Out

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Big Bappis is out and proud at Toronto Fringe, with its production of Greg Campbell’s one-man show Out, directed by Clinton Walker and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

A coming out origin story, based largely on Campbell’s own experience as a teen in Montreal, we follow 17-year-old Glen as he embarks on his journey of self-discovery with friends Dmitri and Marco. Protesting Anita Bryant, seeing The Boys in the Band for the first time and dancing at their favourite gay club, Glen explores his sexuality, his dance moves and learns what it is to be queer in the late 70s. All the while, he’s closeted to his parents, who suspect something’s up, and his mother’s pleas to “tone it down” so as to not upset his father, who turns to the bottle in times of trouble and takes it out on her. And then, the penultimate coming out experience when Glen and his friends sign up for their gay youth group’s road trip to NYC Gay Pride Day, and Glen’s decision to come out to his folks.

Campbell is a charming and engaging storyteller, weaving cultural milestones with Glen’s personal anecdotes. And while this tale is full of sex, fun and music, he doesn’t shy away from the challenges Glen faces with his family, particularly his father. He gives Glen a lovely sense of wonder and exploration; a sensitive and curious young man, he fearlessly dives into new experiences and men despite the heartbreak and homophobia.

The magic of the movies. The power of disco. The wisdom of The Village People. Coming out in 1977 in the funny, touching Out.

Out has one more Fringe performance at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse: today (Sat, July 9) at 2:15; for ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website. Then, it’s off to the Toronto Centre for the Arts for Best of the Fringe, with performances on July 14, 16 and 23 (see the link for show times and tickets).