It’s not often you see a play about genocide and find yourself seat-dancing to a kick-ass groovy rock band. In fact, it’s probably never.
But then, Cambodian Rock Band, Lauren Yee’s play depicting one man’s daunting survival from the notorious Khmer Rouge rule in isn’t your average tale of horror and suffering. Instead, it’s a grab bag full of dichotomies, the funny and the frightful, the cheeky and the cheerless, the musical and the murderous.
And it works splendidly, although maybe not as seamlessly as Yee intends.
Right off the top, we’re gifted with music that will thrill us the entire show. An electric five-person band delivering pop-psychedelic style songs (written/adapted by LA-based group Dengue Fever) that feel utterly genre-familiar other than their Cambodian lyrics.
English-speaking audiences may not understand the words, but we appreciate the vibe. Frankly, after failing to understand the lyrics of almost all the traditional musicals that come through town (somebody hire a sound mixer), it’s a relief to just bliss out to a killer band and get lost in the performance rather than worry that we’re missing key pieces of information.
But let’s back up a second. Cambodian Rock Band isn’t a musical. These numbers, played live by five of the cast members who double as characters in the play, aren’t meant to further Yee’s story as it jumps back and forth from the mid 70’s up to 2008. Instead, the music peppers the play with atmospheric coolness, setting the tone for the larger story she’s trying to tell.
A story about a brutal regime and the extreme lengths of their intolerance.
Under the ruthless Khmer Rouge reign, which flourished when the United States pulled its promised support from Cambodia in 1975, musicians were specifically targeted among the 2 million people murdered in an attempt to purge society of its ills.
Neary (Geena Quintos, resplendent as the lead singer of the band) is a 26-year-old Cambodian American working in Phnom Penh for an NGO attempting to convict a former Khmer Rouge official for war crimes.
Her father Chum (Joe Ngo showing impressive emotional range) turns up out of the blue, with the intent to lure her home. Jokey and dismissive of Neary’s work, Chum feels that her fight goes against everything he raised her for. He wants her forward-looking, ignorant of the life he overcame.
A life far more complex and harrowing than Neary is aware of.
Thankfully Yee has other tricks up her sleeve.
Most of the play takes place in the months before and years after Cambodia falls to Pol Pot. We meet Chum as a young promising pop musician practicing with his bandmates (Moses Villarama Abraham Kim, Jane Lui and Quintos) and follow his fate as the Khmer Rouge takes over, dashing his dreams and redefining his relationships.
Interspersed between scenes, the music roars as the band plays a mixture of original songs and cover tunes of real Cambodian musicians who disappeared during the Khmer genocide.
Then there’s the bad guy.
Conjure the 4th wall-breaking MC from Cabaret, take away his sexual innuendo, make him far more charmingly funny yet ultimately sinister and you have Duch (a superbly nimble Francis Jue) our narrator and surprise villain. No spoilers as to how this dryly amusing character breaks bad, but it’s a testament to Chay Yew’s superb direction and Yee’s sly writing of this character that we like him right up until the point the play renders this impossible.
Yee’s other twist is weaving punchy comic relief into her most afflicting scenes.
Just as she allows the boisterous music to offset the serious nature of the story, moments of real fear and torture are often lightened by unexpected laughter. Yee cleverly allows just enough steam out so that we can once again plunge into the boiling water of the action.
After all this, it's a bit of a letdown when we circle back to Chum and Neary in the closing scenes of the play. The tensions between them and the secrets kept but now revealed seem like shabby window dressings on an otherwise uniquely compelling show.
Stick through it though and there's gold at the end of the rainbow in the form of a three-set thumping musical encore.
We’ve felt the pain, perhaps learned some history and discovered that Dengue Fever may be our new favorite group. It’s no wonder then that we get up out of our seats and shake our butts to all of it.
Cambodian Rock Band runs to February 12 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For tickets, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatere.org. $26-$92.