“Cambodian Rock Band” Mixes Nostalgic Hits with Terror—at Berkeley Rep
Lauren Yee Showcases Talented Cast in Rock Concert + Tragedy
by Karen Caronna
Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” musical at Berkeley Rep showcases an amazingly multi-talented cast.
Travel in Cambodia often reveals a country of beauty and artistic heritage, but also deep sorrow. Lauren’s Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” seeks to fuse the joy of enduring music with a tragic time in history.
Chay Yew energetically directs the musical honoring the Golden Years of Cambodia between the end of colonial occupation and rise of the Khmer Rouge and its lingering aftermath. The music of rock band Dengue Fever and nostalgic Cambodian melodies lace together a frame story of loss and familial reconciliation.
Past permeates present. Chum played by Joseph Ngo, a formidable actor and kick-ass musician, is a former refugee, now a U.S. citizen. He returns to Cambodia to “bring back” his daughter, who is working for an NGO which prosecutes war criminals. Awaiting Chum are his own ghosts as he tries to convince his determined daughter not to search for the “8th Prisoner,” a survivor of the notorious Khmer Rouge Prison S-21.
Scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s staging emphasizes a rolling bandstand, with the music a compelling presence. Lighting designer David Weiner shines a row of spotlights at the audience to create changing atmospheres. We are enveloped in a rock concert, skillfully presented by co-music supervisors and directors Matt MacNelly and Jane Lui. Co-sound designers Mikhail Fiksel and Megumi Katayama employ distant gunfire and marching feet to foretell the catastrophic approach of the Khmer Rouge.
The cast skillfully doubles as both band members and characters who weave the past into the present, tying timeframes together. Francis Jue, a chameleon, craftily plays the fabulously wily and charming narrator Duch, who also weaves memory into current events.
Geena Quintos, with a sublime voice, provides mesmerizing vocals from a treasured time. Moses Villarama poignantly performs Leng, the doomed former bandmate turned Khmer Rouge guard. Ordinary people are asked to do the impossible, and then survive to transcend the horror.
At times Chum’s character veers into cartoonishness, and Yee uses comedic tropes to tell a story of national tragedy. The second act drags as old information is rehashed with predictable twists. The contrived reconciliation of father/daughter and feel good final rock-out ends a clumsy Disneyesque rendering of inter-generational trauma.
The projections by Five Ohm Productions put faces to the victims but ends up feeling like tokenism. Missing is an acknowledgement that the Khmer people are traditionally vibrant, proud, resilient, and community-minded, with an ancient culture.
Sadness, victimhood, and fish spas are not the only story to be told of a dynamic, forward-looking people.
“Cambodian Rock Band” by Lauren Yee, featuring songs by Dengue Fever, directed by Chay Yew, a Signature Theatre production, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Info: BerkeleyRep.org – to April 2, 2023.
Cast: Francis Jue, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, Joseph Ngo, Geena Quintos, and Moses Villarama.
Banner photo: Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos, & Moses Villarama. Photo Lynn Lane