Start spreading the news...NEW YORK ― Just a few blocks from Washington Square Park’s arch, Minetta Lane is one of those quaint old Greenwich Village streets that are filled with classic brownstones and barely wide enough for a large sport-utility vehicle to pass.
And at certain times these days, it’s hard for even a Volkswagen Beetle to squeeze past the Minetta Lane Theatre onto Sixth Avenue’s bustling lanes. For this obstruction, they can thank the crowds massing for shows of “Cookin,’ ” the American version of the long-running Korean percussion show “Nanta” that opened March 8 off-Broadway after two weeks of sold-out previews.
After selling out during a limited run last fall at the New Victory Theater on 42d Street, “Cookin’” has settled into a permanent home. Already, it’s cemented a name for itself as the first commercial production by an Asia-based troupe on Broadway or off-Broadway. Up to now, shows by Korean artists in New York, such as mask dances, musicals and ballets, have been sponsored by nonprofits, local community groups or the Korean government, said Fred Carriere, vice president and executive director of the Korea Society, a nonprofit U.S. group that promotes Korean culture.
In a city that’s always lured outsiders dreaming of making it big, the staff and performers of “Cookin’” are no different. They’re hungry ― and it’s not for greens like cucumbers or cabbage heads, both of which are chopped furiously onstage by the four not-so-professional “chefs” during the 90-minute show. It’s for the kind of green put out by the U.S. Mint.
“We’ve achieved the goal of getting here,” said Sunny Oh, the show’s executive producer with PMC Production Co. “[What’s] more important now is being successful, like getting five or 10 years like ‘Stomp.’”
To succeed, this show must attract consistent crowds to the 385-seat theater, folks who have 55 other off-Broadway shows to choose from, not to mention 32 Broadway productions. Those eyeing ticket receipts hail from both sides of the Pacific: In a unique setup, “Cookin’s” $1.2 million in pre-production costs and $80,000 weekly expenses are footed by both Korean and American investors. Mr. Oh, for one, believed enough in “Cookin’s” potential to quit a comfy job at the venerable Brooklyn Academy of Music in January to jump aboard.
“I wanted to be part of the first case of a Korean or Asian show coming to New York being successful,” he said.
Despite its small scale and the intense competition, “Cookin’” has a lot going for it. It earned rave reviews during its brief run at the New Victory. It’s riding a wave of renewed interest in cooking and Americans’ growing interest in Asian cultures. And its location in Greenwich Village, amid smaller and quirkier productions ― as opposed to midtown, where it might get lost alongside behemoths like “Mamma Mia!” and “The Lion King” ― probably helps.
“An off-Broadway theater downtown is perfect for this show,” said Ronni Mandell, national director of sales and marketing with Richard Frankel Productions, the show’s marketing arm. “Part of the audience we want to attract is the young, hip college audience, and being downtown is an advantage for that.”
It got an extra push from sponsors including Korean Air, LG Corp., the New York-based Korea Times newspaper and even Hanareum, a Korean supermarket in Manhattan that provides an endless supply of choppable vegetables.
There’s also specific potential seen in Asian audiences. Factor, Inc., a New York marketing firm whose niche is communicating with Asian communities, will focus on drawing groups of Asian ticketholders, both from the United States and overseas. At one 6 p.m. preview in late February, a group of Koreans from a Queens church filled a few rows in the $65-per-seat orchestra section. “My wife saw it with the kids when they visited Korea,” said Daniel Chang, who came with the church group.
This suggests “Cookin’” might diverge from the average Broadway demographic, which is 80-percent Caucasian (though of those under 18, fully one-third are non-white).
After a brief Korean language lesson explaining that the word “nanta” means “crazy beat,” the New York production gets thumping as the quartet of chefs ― all veterans of previous shows in Korea, abroad or both ― start tapping out rhythms on kimchi jars, rice bowls, assorted sizes of pots and pans and a water jug.
The comical, fleet-footed cast keeps much of the audience laughing as they bang on drums, chop vegetables, throw plates like Frisbees, perform martial arts moves and even invite audience members onstage to taste soup and make dumplings. It all takes place in a compact kitchen setting, featuring four rolling tables and a rear wall decorated with Korean calligraphy.
Though only a handful of words are uttered, and most of them are mumbled, the plot is easy enough to follow that even the youngest in the crowd are caught up in the energy. “This is everyone’s show ― children can enjoy it,” said Mr. Oh, the executive producer.
“Cookin’” has rehearsed its moves long and hard for New York. Korea’s longest-running show has already played before millions in more than 20 countries across Europe and Asia. “Everywhere we went, it’s been completely sold out,” Mr. Oh said.
Originally, the show was to open in New York in 2001, but “then Sept. 11 happened, so we pulled back from that plan,” he said. Finally, after a successful run last fall, the decision was made to plunge ahead.
The organizers have brought two sets of casts to New York, who alternate shows in the twice-daily schedule. Though they speak little English, Mr. Oh said the performers are acclimating to life in “the Village.” Should the show manage to keep pulling in the crowds, however, producers may begin to train American actors to allow the Seoul crew to return to family on the peninsula.
“Cookin’” may hail from Korea, but interviews with several theatergoers found that its Korean roots did not figure prominently in their decision to come. Some had been tempted by the solid reviews ― others by the food theme. “A friend recommended it and it looks interesting,” said Geraldine Chung. “He loves to cook, so any show involving cooking would raise some interest here.”
Even so, “Cookin’” will give its viewers at least a whiff of Korean culture. Laura Jung, 21, a Korean American university student waiting to see it, said, “It’s a big step toward [Koreans] showing what they can do, and their talents. There’s a lot of Chinese actors that are known and a lot of Chinese movies that are mainstream in America, and there’s isn’t anything Korean.”
“Nanta” in Seoul
“Nanta” is currently playing at two theaters in Seoul:
― At the PMC Theater, southern Seoul, showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays and 3 and 6 p.m. Sundays and holidays (no shows on Tuesdays). Tickets range from 30,000 won ($26) to 50,000 won. From Apgujeong Station, line No. 3, exit 2, take the 63-1 bus to the Kinema Theater, or from Sinsa Station, line No. 3, exit 1, take bus 83, 567, 239-1 to Youngdong Fire Station.
― At the Cookin’ Theater, central Seoul, showtimes are 4 and 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 3 and 6 p.m. Sundays and holidays. Tickets are 20,000 to 50,000 won. From City Hall Station, lines 1 and 2, take exit 2 or 12 and walk 400 meters along the Deoksu Palace wall; turn right at Yewon High School.
For tickets at either theater, call (02) 739-8288. For more information, visit www.nanta.co.kr and select “English” from the menu.
by Joel Levin