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Review Roundup: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND at the Pershing Square Signature Center - What Did the Critics Think?

Cambodian Rock Band

Cambodian Rock Band officially opened Monday, February 24 on the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). The production is an limited engagement through March 15, 2019.

The cast of Cambodian Rock Band includes Francis Jue as Duch, Abraham Kim as Rom/Journalist, Jane Lui as Pou/S21 Guard, Joe Ngo as Chum, Courtney Reed as Neary/Sothea and Moses Villarama as Ted/Leng/Cadre.

Guitars tuned. Mic checked. Get ready to rock! This darkly funny, electric new play with music tells the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor returning to Cambodia for the first time in thirty years, as his daughter prepares to prosecute one of Cambodia's most infamous war criminals. Backed by a live band playing contemporary Dengue Fever hits and classic Cambodian oldies, this thrilling story toggles back and forth in time as father and daughter face the music of the past.

Let's see what the critics are saying...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: To Yee's credit, she neatly connects all the seemingly far-flung dots of her story. But neither her script nor Yew's production - which features period-defining costumes by Linda Cho and lighting by David Weiner - can comfortably reconcile the radical shifts in style and mood, between the bright sardonicism of Duch's speeches to the audience and the furrowed-brow sincerity of the father-daughter scenes. This is a shame. For there is indeed a compelling heart of darkness in "Cambodian Rock Band," explored in a long, second-act sequence set at the S21 Prison and performed unflinchingly by Jue, Villarama and Ngo.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: This is a thoughtful, ranging play, with humor studded into its all-too-believable pain and trauma. It is also a necessary and illuminating history lesson filled with detail, and written and directed (by Chay Yew) with both care and flair. And it is a very human family drama: Both father and daughter want to do right by the other, to protect the other-even if this means variously wanting to reveal or conceal what happened to Chum, his friend Leng (Moses Villarama), and Duch back then. Then there is the music on stage: Cambodian surf rock, which combines Cambodian and American music in wonderfully played arrangements by the band Dengue Fever.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: The play's chief weakness is that the whole reason for Chum's unannounced arrival in Cambodia is his fear that Neary will never look at him the same way once she knows his truth, and Yee makes that discovery anticlimactic. But when the action swerves with time-tripping magic into a performance that suggests the enduring power of music - and by extension, the human spirit - to outlast even the most horrific experience, it's easy to be swept along by the foot-stomping beat.

Helen Shaw, Vulture: Yee's dialogue does occasionally throw a strong punch - moments can be quite powerful, even when the scenes' edges and connective ligaments are ragged. These are sometimes awkwardly yanked together by narrator/villain (Francis Jue), who seems redundant in his first function, sentimental in the second. Yee's best inspiration comes in the overall shape of her show. After she saw a show by Dengue Fever, a California band that plays with '60s Cambodian pop and throwback psychedelic rock sounds, Yee put just such a band right at the heart of her structure. Throughout the play, director Yew's talented cast - Ngo, Reed, Abraham Kim, the amazing Jane Lui and Moses Villarama - play Dengue Fever's songs on a little rock stage, sometimes in character as Chum's lost band in Phnom Penh, sometimes for the sheer hell of it.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Imagine a version of "Cabaret" where the Emcee turns out to be Adolf Eichmann or Klaus Barbie. Now, transplant that reimagined show to Southeast Asia, and you have a glimpse into Lauren Yee's harrowing and wildly funny play about the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. A new staging of "Cambodian Rock Band" opened Monday at Off Broadway's Signature Theatre, following a number of regional productions of Yee's play.

Melissa Rose Bernardo, New York Stage Review: If Duch is the play's voice, Chum is its heart and soul, and Cambodian Rock Band, Yee, and director Chay Yew are lucky to have Ngo, who pinballs effortlessly between imprisoned frightened teenager and inscrutable frightened father. He has played Chum in three previous productions, and, more important, he's a child of Khmer Rouge survivors himself, and helped develop the play. He also plays a wicked guitar, and turns in a stirring rendition of "Champa Battambang," a synth-heavy slow jam that opens Act Two.

Michael Sommers, New York Stage Review: Very sharply written by Lauren Yee and brilliantly performed by an exceptional ensemble of six actor/musicians, Cambodian Rock Band is a seriously entertaining show.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Directed by Chay Yew, Cambodian Rock Band doesn't quite hang together as a whole: It relies too much on contrivance and exposition, especially in the modern parts. But there's something both touching and rousing about the way it honors the lost beat of Cambodia's past. It's an act of defibrillation.

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