Saturday, February 29, 2020

173 (2019-2020): Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND (seen February 28, 2020)

"Khmer Rock"

Imagine, if you will, a Holocaust drama about a Jewish klezmer band, in which one of the musicians, failing to flee the oncoming Nazis in time, ends up in a concentration camp, where he’s tortured under the supervision of an Eichmann-like authority. Then imagine that this dire situation is surrounded by a heavy infusion of rambunctious, even joyous klezmer music, ending with a festive, musical explosion in which the audience is up on its feet, dancing at its seats, arms waving, as if watching a concert at the Beacon.  

Courtney Reed (C) and company. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Yes. A show combining genocidal horror with head-banging joy. Not an easy combination to imagine but that’s what—give or take a few drawbacks—playwright Lauren Yee and director Chay Yew have just about pulled off in Cambodian Rock Band, originally produced by the South Coast Repertory and subsequently seen at a number of other venues. The show, of course, isn’t about the Nazi Holocaust, but deals instead with the similarly apocalyptic reign of Cambodia’s fanatical communist party, the Khmer Rouge, under the murderous leadership of Pol Pot in the late 1970s, leaving two million dead in its wake.
Courtney Reed, Joe Ngo. 
The musician at its heart, Chum (Joe Ngo), is a guitarist in a Cambodian rock band, the Cyclos, and the music that they play, coming from several sources, is mainly from the playbook of Dengue Fever. That’s the overheated name of an acclaimed American band that originated in the 1990s doing covers of Cambodian rock from the pre-Khmer Rouge days, the original musicians having died or disappeared during the mass slaughters and detentions.

Yee’s two-act play, whose script declares “some of this really happened,” at first seems a condensed introduction to the Khmer Rouge’s bloody period of power, from 1975-1979. Her dramaturgic hook is the return in 2008 to Cambodia of Chum, who eventually fled to America, where he and his wife raised a daughter, Neary (Courtney Reed, Aladdin).
Company of Cambodian Rock Band.
Chum’s return is related to Neary’s work for the International Center for Transitional Justice, concerned with war crimes. She’s investigating the deeds of a Khmer Rouge leader known as Duch, responsible for the deaths of 20,000 at the notorious S-21 prison, once a school, now a museum. Seven people are known to have survived but evidence of an eighth has come to light, and Neary needs to find that person. Dad doesn’t think this a good idea.

Act one, set both in 2008 and 1975, sets up the background by educating the audience about the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, as well as its socially and technologically oppressive ideology (a ban on music was one of its lesser restrictions). Artists and intellectuals were considered no better than dust. At the same time, it establishes—often through broad comic strokes—the father-daughter relationship between Chum and Neary that opens a door into the past revealing what Chum endured. Linda Cho’s costumes precisely capture each period’s look, especially those of the bell-bottomed, polyester 70s.

Finally, it presents Chum’s psychedelic surf rock band finishing its one and only album just before the Khmer Rouge takes power. The act is so concerned with exposition, though, that it’s easy to wonder where its dramatic heart is. (Another seven songs—including Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”—are heard in act two.)
Moses Villarama, Francis Jue.
Reed, who also plays Neary, is star-quality good as Sothea, the lead singer, both because of her considerable charisma and beauty (her sinuous hand and arm movements based on Cambodian dance will light many fires) and her stunning vocals.
Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Francis Jue, Courtney Reed, Moses Villarama.
Weaving the present-day events together with the past, and providing the show with a theatrically inviting premise, is Duch himself, played as a Cabaret-like host by Francis Jue (Soft Power), addressing us directly with a fascinating blend of insinuating panache, sardonic humor, and wicked charm. He even mocks words like “genocide.”
Moses Villarama, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed, Abraham Kim.
In act two, however, he takes on a far darker tone as the set assumes the look of an interrogation room, with Duch ripping off his emcee persona and exposing his insidious side in confrontations with Chum. Like Adolf Eichmann, he’ll fall back on the excuse that he “was just following orders.” Chum, for his part, will have his own guilty secrets to deal with.
Francis Jue.
Chay Yew’s lively direction swings back and forth between bold theatricality and basic realism, although the former generally gets the edge. Joe Ngo—himself a son of Khmer Rouge survivors—gives a dynamic performance as Chum. (He’s played it in two previous productions.) He starts off, though, with such clownish behavior that, in contrast to the grounded personality of Reed’s Courtney, it borders on annoying. However, when, over the arc of the performance, you watch the demands placed upon the actor—who also must be an expert musician—you forgive the early exaggeration and applaud him for sculpting an unforgettable portrait.
Joe Ngo, Francis Jue.
Yee’s language is always vibrantly alive, and, while her plotting is sometimes awkward and contrived (the story depends on a huge coincidence), she nevertheless manages to compel attention throughout its two hours and 15 minutes. Cambodian Rock Band maintains its entertainment value while making a significant contribution to educating audiences about the Khmer Rouge’s carnage, including footnotes on America’s own responsibility for what happened.
Joe Ngo, Francis Jue.
Cambodian Rock Band is hard to categorize, however, since its music—like what you’d hear in certain jukebox musicals—is unconnected to its story; many lyrics are actually in Cambodian. Even with 13 numbers, it’s hard to call it a musical. Whatever you call it, you won’t soon forget it.
Company of Cambodian Rock Band.
I admit to having felt a bit uncomfortable at joining in the celebratory finale (Jue, dashing among the audience as the music blasted away, gave me, of all people, a cowbell to beat) but I also felt I’d been present at a work of raw theatrical power. Unquestionably, Cambodian Rock Band rocks.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 22