The Pershing Square Signature Center, the Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through March 15, $55-$65
Back when pop music was released on actual records, artists in the 1970s would often put their best songs on side one of their albums, knowing that many people would rarely get off the couch, go to the turntable, and flip the disc to hear the other side. In Cambodian Rock Band, Lauren Yee’s play with music about the second-generation immigrant experience and the Cambodian genocide of 1975–79, it’s side two that is much better, but not quite enough to save the overall proceedings at the Signature Theatre.
Cambodian Rock Band was inspired both by Dengue Fever, a 2000s California band that resurrected the lost Cambodian psychedelic sounds of the 1970s, and the true story of Kang Kek Iew, aka Duch (Francis Jue), a math teacher whom the Khmer Rouge turned into the coldblooded head of Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21. The end of pop music in Cambodia and the rise of war criminals like Duch are, of course, related, and Duch serves as a kind of host/narrator in the show, jovially introducing several scenes, watching from the wings, and joining the band before becoming a key figure in the story’s second half. Yee focuses on the relationship between Neary (Courtney Reed), a young American of Cambodian descent who works for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Phnom Penh, and her father, Chum (Joe Ngo), a Cambodian immigrant who has returned to his homeland for the first time in decades in order to bring his daughter back to the United States. But Neary is on a big case, attempting to take down Duch as she searches for the eighth survivor of S-21, an eyewitness who can help put Duch away for life, to make him pay for his vicious crimes. Neary is working and living with Ted (Moses Villarama), a Canadian of Thai and Cambodian background; he is surprised when her father’s unexpected appearance on Cambodian New Year’s Eve causes her to doubt herself. “You’re working to convict the first Khmer Rouge official to be tried for crimes against humanity. You are a rock star, Near,” he assures her. But it all starts making sense when she figures out who the eighth survivor is and the action flashes back to S-21, highlighting both the torture and the bravery under Brother Number One Pol Pot’s brutal policies.
The show moves between 1975, 1978, and 2008; in 1975, Chum is the guitarist in a Cambodian rock band known as the Cyclos that specializes in psychedelic surf garage rock, with Villarama as bassist Leng, Reed as lead vocalist Sothea, Abraham Kim as drummer Rom, and Jane Lui as keyboardist Pou. (Kim and Lui also portray minor characters.) The music they play are Cambodian rock songs that were discovered in the 1990s, mostly from bands from the 1960s and ’70s that did not survive the genocide; one of the first things the Khmer Rouge did upon taking over was to kill artists. The Cyclos, named for the three-wheeled bicycle that is pervasive in Cambodia, perform numbers by Yol Aularong, Ros Serey Sothea, Sinn Sisamouth, and Voy Ho, who were all murdered, as well as originals by LA-based Dengue Fever. Most of the songs are sung in Cambodian without translation, about love and heartbreak, but some have more relevant lyrics, so it’s too bad there are no surtitles. “The windy season makes me think of my village / I think of the old people, young people, aunts and uncles / We used to run and play, hide and seek / But now we are far apart far apart,” they sing in one.
Takeshi Kata’s effective sets range from a hotel bedroom with a view of the street (the sign about the piranha is purposefully misspelled, yes?) to one of the cells in S-21; Linda Cho’s costumes for the band are downright groovy, while Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design immerses you in the action. The music is excellent, but there’s too much of it; unfortunately, it makes you feel like you’re at a concert, which takes you out of the play. Yee (The Great Leap, King of the Yees) and director Chay Yew (Mojada, Low) have trouble establishing a rhythm; the setlist/narrative is a bumpy road that never quite comes together. Jue (Soft Power Kung Fu) has fun as the villainous Jue, and Reed shuttles smoothly between Neary and Sothea, but Ngo, whose parents are survivors and who helped develop the show with Yee, overplays Chum, who is often too goofy and too loud. A finalist for the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Cambodian Rock Band has an important story to tell, but it ends up like one of those albums in your collection that has some great songs on it that you rarely listen to all the way through.