Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND: Feel the Beat at Merrimack Repertory Theatre

By: Oct. 23, 2019
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Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND: Feel the Beat at Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Cambodian Rock Band

Written by Lauren Yee, Featuring Songs by Dengue Fever, Directed by Marti Lyons; Associate Director, Hannah Todd; Scenic Designer, Yu Shibagaki; Costume Designer, Izumi Inaba; Lighting Designer, Keith Parham; Sound Designer, Mikhail Fiskel; Music Director, Matt MacNelly; Dramaturg, Skyler Gray; Fight Director, Matt Hawkins; Stage Manager, Becca Freifeld; Producer, Peter Crewe

CAST (in alphabetical order): Eileen Doan, Albert Park, Christopher Thomas Pow, Peter Sipla, Greg Watanabe, Aja Wiltshire

Performances through November 10 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or

A mini-trend in local theaters this season is staging musicals and plays with music that border on the definition of concert, but for varying degrees of book content. American Repertory Theater kicked things off with the wives of Henry VIII singing about their lives and marriages in Six, David Byrnes' pre-Broadway American Utopia features songs from his most recent album loosely-connected by his spoken remarks, and now Merrimack Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and City Theatre in Pittsburgh, presents Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band, a play that fuses history, family legacy, and rock concert to illustrate the power and importance of music.

Other than the concert aspect of the play, CRB bears no resemblance to either of the other shows in plot, concept, or dramatic impact. It focuses on a daughter's attempt to unearth family history by journeying to Cambodia, her father's homeland, and searching for a survivor from a brutal Khmer Rouge prison whose testimony could seal the fate of its tyrannical overseer. Set in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the play opens in April, 2008, when Neary (Aja Wiltshire) is surprised by her father Chum's (Greg Watanabe) arrival from America as she and her boyfriend/co-worker Ted (Christopher Thomas Pow) are in the midst of preparing for the long-awaited trial of Comrade Duch (Albert Park), the war criminal.

Chum has his own reasons for returning to the country he fled thirty years earlier to escape the deadly reign of Pol Pot, and the playwright's flashback conceit shows us his young life as a member of a rock band when music was the heart and soul of Cambodia, before his world was forever changed. He and his bandmates Pou (Eileen Doan), Leng (Pow), Rom (Peter Sipla), and Sothea (Wiltshire) are in the process of recording a tape and awaiting the new year celebration (April, 1975) when they learn that the Americans are pulling out of the country and the Khmer Rouge is poised to fill the void. It is an all-too visceral reminder of history repeating itself as we hear the sounds of choppers approaching, bombs exploding, and an incoming army. Facing an uncertain future, like the musicians who continued to perform on the deck of the sinking Titanic, the band members grab their instruments and play with a fierce urgency, as if their lives depended on it.

Yee toggles back and forth between 2008, 1975, and 1978, with some segments set up by Duch's narration, his onstage charm belying his iniquity. The second act (1978) delves into the horrors faced by Chum, and countless others, imprisoned in the roundup of artists, intellectuals, and dissidents. At the facility referred to as S21, Duch oversees torture, interrogations, and killings, while never soiling his own hands. Chum's old friend and bandmate Leng has survived the purge by joining the Khmer Rouge and is assigned to Chum's case. The situation between them is fraught, but I won't give away what happens other than to suggest it is life-changing for both of them. The re-enactment of his experiences is Chum's way of finally sharing his past with Neary so that she can fully understand the history of her country and her family.

Watanabe and Wiltshire carry the bulk of the story on their shoulders and their connection is palpable. His character transforms through the decades, and he conveys the ardent youth, the fearful captive, and the strong survivor with equal aplomb. As a member of the band, Watanabe plays a mean bass guitar, as well. Wiltshire shows Neary's passionate striving for justice, her frustration with her father, and her enlightenment when she learns the truth. She excels as the vocalist in the band. Pow sings and plays lead guitar, and brings a steady, calming presence as Ted. Doan (keyboards) and Sipla (drums) contribute their fine musical skills to complete the band. In contrast to these nice folks, Park's Duch seems even more evil, like the kind of kid who enjoys torturing small animals, and he does it with equanimity.

Director Marti Lyons weaves the musical scenes in organically and maintains clarity in the time changes so the audience always knows which period is being portrayed. The set (designer Yu Shibagaki) has light towers and the skeleton of a concert stage, with props like a door or a bed rolled out for scenes in the prison or Neary's hotel room. Keith Parham's lighting design effectively changes mood and environment, Mikhail Fiskel (sound) creates the sounds of war and amplifies the band, and Izumi Inaba's costume design represents the styles of the 70s and the present. Music director Matt MacNelly has whipped the band into shape, making the concert aspect of CRB feel lively and authentic.

Although my preference is that the number of songs in the show could be cut to strengthen the impact of the book, it is difficult to assess what would be lost as many of the lyrics are in Khmer. The music is an important and powerful piece of the story, but because the story and the relationships are so compelling, dropping a couple of songs would pick up the pace and leave more of the attention where it belongs. Cambodian Rock Band plays a tune that needs to be heard.

Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover, Courtesy of City Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA (Christopher Thomas Pow, Peter Sipla, Aja Wiltshire, Eileen Doan, Greg Watanabe)


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