Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Cookin'Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent review of The Importance of Being Earnest

Min Goo Jung and Jung Hwan Hyun
Photo by Glen Stubbe
Who knew a kitchen could produce such an abundance of sounds, rhythms, images, laughs, and feats of daring? Clearly Seung-Hwan Song, the creator and artistic director of Cookin', knew it, and further, that it would be a way to express some aspects of his Korean culture on stage in a way that works at home–it is the longest-running show in South Korean history, playing non-stop in Seoul since its premiere in October 1997, much of the time simultaneously at two theaters–as well as abroad. Cookin' sold out every show and was awarded Best Performance at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, has toured internationally for decades, had an eighteen-month Off-Broadway run in New York (2004-2005), and in 2013 opened its own theater in Bangkok, Thailand, where it continues to run.

The heat of Cookin' has finally found its way to Minnesota. It is being presented as the season-opener at Children's Theatre Company, but make no mistake, this high energy Cookin' is a feast for all ages. The show is almost completely nonverbal, with only a few English words uttered in the course of the show. It runs for ninety minutes without intermission, and though there were many young children in the audience at the performance I attended, I heard not a whimper the entire time.

Cookin' opens with a prologue that seems be an invocation to the theatre gods, with a percussive display played on metal drums and meditation bowls, the rhythms and volume rising to crescendo, then calming to a purr as Jonghwa Park and Yunyoung Koo's lighting design creates an ethereal realm. Mission accomplished, the show breaks into what passes for a narrative. Three chefs are assigned by the restaurant manager to have a wedding banquet prepared in just one hour, a large clock visible on the wall to mark the passing of time. The challenge becomes greater when the manager brings in his bungling nephew, making him a chef and demoting one of the actual chefs to clean-up boy. Added to this bit of tension is a covert romance between two of the chefs, which reaches its fullest bloom when they set down their cooking tools and launch into a tango.

The chefs must prepare soup, wedding cake, and more. In doing so, the show is taken up with an amazing array of ways to transform kitchen work into eye-popping entertainment. This takes the form of acrobatics, juggling routines, dance, martial arts, magic tricks, sight gags–a routine that involves one of the chef's fannies getting wedged into a waste container is particularly good–and more rhythmic percussion using cutting boards and knives, plastic jugs, pots and pans, and whatever else the chefs can get their hands on. Inventing is king as, for example, a pair of batter whips become a set of nunchucks. Slicing and dicing carrots, cucumbers, and especially cabbage has never looked like so much fun, nor made such a glorious mess. For anyone adverse to meat, there is none to be seen in this kitchen. A couple of times, audience volunteers are brought up to the stage to take part in can't-miss comical routines. In another segment, the entire audience chimes in, with delightful mayhem emerging from the challenge of communicating instructions to the crowd non-verbally.

While there is no attempt to present an in-depth understanding of Korean culture, the particular styles of traditional percussion, the martial arts, and the methods of food preparation serve as representations of the culture, with strains of traditional Korean music blended with contemporary fare in Oksoon Kang's score, delivered with vibrant clarity by sound designer Kiyoung Koo. Heeju Kim designed the simple but highly effective costumes, with the cooks in the kitchen color-coded to help keep track of which is which. The functional set is the work of Dongwoo Park and Sookjin Seo. The show is quite likely the only one ever devised that gives credits to coaches for martial arts (Kyewhan Park), magic (Jungwoo Kim), percussion (Kicheol Cho), and cooking skills (Yosub Choi), and they all must be terrific at their jobs, since the cast executes it all flawlessly.

The cast members are Jung Hwan Hyun, Min Goo Jung, Changhwan Ko, Hyejin Song and Ho Yeoul Sul. All five are astonishingly good at everything they do. Among the highlights, Changhwan Ko has great command in working with the audience, Ho Yeoul Sui displays comic flair as the restaurant manager, and Hyejin Song is impossible to look away from every time she athletically tosses her silky hair from side to side. The show concludes with a finale that raises the temperature even higher, drawing on lighting effects and extravagant percussion that peaks like the eruption of a volcano.

Cookin is the type of production brought in by the Children's Theatre Company that makes the point that there is no such thing as typical children's theatre fare. Point taken, and more power to the CTC leadership for providing such a broad range to its audience.

Cookin' is absolutely suitable for children (allowing for any youngsters who may have difficulty with the loud volume that often arises) and for adults of any age. It is a testament to the exquisitely high caliber of skill a group of performers can attain as individuals and as a coordinated unit. Best of all, it is wonderfully uplifting fun for all ages. With or without a child or two in tow, you should go.

Cookin' runs through October 22, 2023, at at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-874-0400 or visit Best enjoyed by all ages.

Artistic Director: Seung-Whan Song; Percussion Director: Kicheol Cho; Choreographer: Oksoon Kang; Composer: Dong Jun Lee; Scenic Design: Dongwoo Park, Sookjin Seo; Costume Design: Heeju Kim Lighting Design: Jonghwa Park, Yunyoung Koo; Sound Design: Kiyoung Kim; Marital Arts: Kyewhan Park; Magic Tricks: Jungwoo Kim; Cooking Skills: Yosub Choi; Creative Consultant: Marcia Milgrom Dodge; Associate Director: Cheol Ki Choi; Production Supervisor: Young Eun Park; Technical Director and Stage Manager: Daehui Yun; Producers: Kwangho Lee and Seung-Whan Song.

Cast: Jung Hwan Hyun, Min Goo Jung, Changhwan Ko, Hyejin Song, Ho Yeoul Sul. Understudies: Kyuna Kim, Dong Keun Lee.