I’m beyond thrilled that Soulpepper has brought Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience back to the stage. I’ve long regretted missing it on its first run, and I’ve been a fan of the CBC show since I first binge watched the first three or four episodes in one night. I love the TV show mostly for the fantastic on-screen chemistry of its cast, but also for the space it gives to develop the characters’ story arcs and relationships beyond the family, and I wondered how the stage version would compare.
Kim’s Convenience on stage is like an espresso shot to the TV version’s latte. It’s brief, it’s intense, and it manages to convey an incredibly rich story in just 90 minutes. While the TV show takes its time in teasing out the various threads in the characters’ stories, the play hurtles through its stories within a single day, building upon its momentum as it goes. Both versions are unique but equally strong, and it’s well worth checking them both out.
I love the brisk pace of the play. TV viewers will recognize some of the jokes from the first couple of episodes, and if anything, the rapid-fire pace made me appreciate the writing a bit more. Whereas I felt the writing on the TV show took a few episodes to find its rhythm, the play knocked joke after joke out of the park. Like the TV show, the play was incredibly adept at flipping its audience from uproarious laughter to silent tears, and it was great seeing an entire theatre feel as strongly about the scenes as I did.
I’ve always loved the acting in Kim’s Convenience. In fact, it is the sheer talent and charisma of Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (Appa) and Jean Yoon (Umma) that hooked me on the show in the first place, and I was totally fan-girling over the chance to see them in person. It’s a testament to their talent that they are equally strong on stage and on screen, and I’m so glad they reprised their roles in the play.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has created such a rich, loveable, iconic character in Appa. Even when he does or says something inappropriate and you sympathize with his daughter Janet’s frustration, you can’t help but continue loving the character anyway. We learn a bit more of Appa’s backstory here than has been revealed yet in the TV show. It’s a story that adds context to his protectiveness over the store and that I think will resonate with many immigrant families.
Lee has some of the most hilarious scenes in the play, and also the most emotional. There are two points where he talks about his life, “the story of Mr. Kim,” and while these snippets of dialogue are brief, they are also some of the most heart-wrenching. And a scene where he and Janet fight about her career goals (which don’t include taking over the store) just about broke my heart.
Jean Yoon as Umma has the most heartbreaking smile. Her pain over the tensions between her husband and their children is evident even as she cheerfully moves around the store. A lot of her dialogue is in Korean, and because I didn’t understand the words, I love how much she is able to convey with her facial expressions and tone. She reminded me a bit of my mom, and I’m not completely sure why. Possibly it’s Umma’s desire for harmony in the family, and her preference to hide frustrations with a smile rather than confront tension head on.
Yoon and Richard Lee (Jung) also have strong, beautiful singing voices. The scene where Umma sings and Jung joins in is such a beautiful, magical moment. Of all the strong scenes in this play, this scene was the one that made me feel the silence from the audience. I may have held my breath at one point, so immersed I was in the moment, and at the end of the song, all I could think was wow. Yoon sang on the TV show as well, but there’s something about the acoustics of the space and the intimacy of the setting that made her voice seem so much richer in person.
Richard Lee as Jung and Rosie Simon as Janet are also really strong. I loved the restraint with which Simon played the confrontation scenes, and the subtle shifts of expression on Lee’s face in the climactic final scene. While I love the TV versions of the characters as well, I’m glad they’re a bit older in the play. I can actually imagine the TV versions growing up into the stage versions — Janet becoming more confident in her photography and more tempered in her frustration over her parents, and Jung becoming less certain about his choices and more aware of his desire to return home. The TV fan in me hopes that the play doesn’t necessarily predict the future of the TV versions, as Jung on stage has some marital issues and I’m still pulling for TV Jung to find his happily ever after with Shannon.
Finally, all kudos to Ronnie Rowe Jr, who performed all the other roles in the play. It was pretty amazing to see him return to the stage in a different outfit and be such a distinctively different person. Whether it’s a new accent or a different demeanour, he manages to make each new character distinct. He also had the most hapkido encounters with Appa, which was a comedic highlight and a running gag with the perfect punchline.
If there’s one criticism I’d make about the play, it’s that I wanted it to be longer. I was just getting excited about the second act (I hadn’t realized there was no intermission) when the resolution happened, and I was left wanting more. Fortunately for anyone who feels the same way, the TV show’s first season is still available online. I had hoped that the play would tide me over until the show returns in the fall, but instead it just made me more impatient for new episodes.
Kim’s Convenience is fantastic, both on stage and on screen, and I’m so glad I got to see both. If you’re a fan of either play or show, definitely check out the other version, as they complement each other very well. And if you haven’t seen either yet, definitely check out the play, and I guarantee you’ll be binge-watching the TV show immediately after.
Kim’s Convenience is on stage at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in Toronto from February 8 – March 4. Buy tickets here. It’s also a touring production — it was in Neptune Theatre, Halifax before hitting Toronto and it’ll be in New York this July.
#okseeyou at the theatre, and thanks to Soulpepper for bringing this masterpiece back to the stage!