Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND at La Jolla Playhouse

By: Nov. 29, 2019
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Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND at La Jolla Playhouse

Usually when parents and kids discuss music it ends in a disagreement of some sort and not in a touching and emotional understanding of the lives the parents had lived. Nor does one think of putting something like the events of the Cambodian genocide that was the Khmer Rouge with 1970's inspired fun ,and funky surf rock sound, and yet this also comes together for a captivating and emotional show that is made all that more powerful due to this juxtaposition. All these things combined are what make CAMBOADIAN ROCK BAND, now playing the La Jolla Playhouse such a fantastic show that is not to be missed.

The cast are true rock star triple threats, being both the band musicians, singers, and the actors in the play. Incorporating the songs of LA based band Dengue Fever, this play with music is beautifully written by UCSD MFA grad Lauren Yee. It weaves the story and the songs in such a way that only increases the emotional impact of the story and what used to be, what was lost, and what cost someone may pay for the hope of a future.

The scene is initially set by our host (Daisuke Tsuji) who is a charming, funny, and gregarious guy who looks like the host of a slightly sinister game show. A young woman named Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) is an American who is working in Phnom Penh to bring a Khmer Rouge war criminal to justice. She comes back to her hotel to find her father Chum (Joe Ngo) has arrived unannounced as surprise visit. He is really trying to get her to come back to the states and go to law school; seeing only the potential danger and no worthy conclusion in continuing to pursue her current work.

Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND at La Jolla Playhouse
Photo credit: (L-R) Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Jane Lui, Abraham Kim and Moses Villarama photo by Jim Carmody.

The first act is a compelling mix of drama, humor, and music that lays out puzzle pieces of information. As Neary digs into this period of Cambodia's past, she also uncovers more of her father's history before he immigrated to America. This makes for an incredibly moving Act 2 as those puzzle pieces come together and reveal an unknown story of brutality, hope, and survival.

The entire cast is excellent, but the performance and physicality by Ngo is astonishing (as well as his playing the electric guitar).

Directed by Chay Yew the play moves quickly, but confidently and fancifully through the story. This allows the play to not shy away from the seriousness of this Khmer Rouge without drowning in pathos.

CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND is joyful, heartbreaking, entirely human, and literally rocks, don't miss it.

CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through December 15th. For ticket and show time information go to

Photo credit: (L-R) Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Jane Lui and Moses Villarama photo by Jim Carmody.