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Flash Review 1, 9-30: Blazing Woks
From Korea, a Sizzling "Cookin'"

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- One of the slides that greeted the audience -- including many young children -- entering the New Victory Theater over the weekend proclaims "Jackie Chan meets Benihana meets The Marx Brothers." An equally apt description might be "Stomp" meets "The Sixty Minute Chef." Originally titled "Nanta" ("to strike recklessly"), "Cookin'," Korea's longest running show, has played to millions in over twenty Asian, European, and North American countries since its opening in 1997.

Conceived by Korean actor/producer Seung Whan Song and co-choreographed by Ok Soon Kang and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, this extravaganza on a shoestring utilizes rhythms based on those devised by ancient farm workers to lighten their labor, much as plantation work songs did in the early South. Dong Woo Park's colorful restaurant kitchen setting features a yellow rear wall, covered in Korean calligraphy and draped with strands of garlic cloves; two outsized red ventilating fans flank four metal rolling tables upstage.

In an "overture," four cast members in silhouette play the traditional instruments of Samulnori music (literally, "playing with four instruments"): hour-glass and barrel shaped drums, large and small gongs. From then on, Don Jung Lee's recorded electronic music and Jai Hyun Park's atmospheric sound design fill the aural spaces between the many bouts of live percussion.

The schematic plot of this 80-minute barrage of rhythm, comedy, and cooking is that Head Chef (Won Hae Kim), the Female Cook (Choo Ja Seo), and Sexy Food Dude (Ho Yeoul Sul) have only one hour to prepare a wedding feast on orders from the restaurant Manager (Kang Il Kim). The fly in the ointment is that the Manager insists that his ham-fisted Nephew (Bum Chan Lee), a culinary novice, assist them. The four then proceed to turn everything from chopsticks to ladles to cleavers into weapons of mass percussion, pounding on walls, the floor, pots and pans, chopping blocks, and each other, as they try to prepare stir-fry, salad, and roast a recalcitrant duck that has other plans.

The versatile, animated cast manages to work Kung Fu, juggling, Frisbee throwing, and vocalizing into their cooking chores. The performers pull off the varied skills -- although their resume credits list mostly straight acting roles -- and of course, do it all with relentlessly high energy. The humor is broad enough that even the vociferous four-year-olds seated near me get the jokes, driven home with grimaces and grins from the stage.

Two good-natured volunteers are cajoled from the audience and dressed in colorful regalia to stand in for the bride and groom; they taste and approve the chefs' soup pot. Later two couples are dragged onstage to abet a kim chi-making contest, with the chefs divided into a red and a blue team, urging their respective halves of the audience to root boisterously for their team.

Along the way the words "onion, cucumber, carrot, and cabbage" turn into a doo-wop ditty; another highlight is a percussion quartet, beaten out with chef's knives on chopping blocks. But like "Stomp," after which the show is obviously modeled, "Cookin'" doesn't know when enough is enough. A martial arts battle with broomsticks between Nephew and the Head Chef, and a magic display by the Manager drag down the pace.

In the pounding epilog, disco lights flash (lighting by Hak Young Kim), and water droplets that fly off the drumheads sparkle in yet another eardrum-splitting rampage of drumming with the men now bare-chested, pummeling kegs labeled salt, sugar, pepper, hot oil, and soy sauce. The audience gets whipped into an appropriate frenzy, so they know they've gotten their money's worth. "Cookin'," wholesome family entertainment, opened September 25 and sizzles on through October 19.

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