Theater Review: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND (Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

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by Chuck Louden on March 3, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Berkeley Rep is debuting The Bay Area premiere of Chinese-American Playwright Lauren Yee’s acclaimed Cambodian Rock Band. The story follows a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime who returns to his country decades later. Marxist Dictator Pol Pol ruled Cambodia from 1975-79; a radical communist, he forced an evacuation of the capital city of Phnom Penh, where over 2 million fled the city and it was estimated that up to 25% of the population were killed.

Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos, and Moses Villarama

The story — shown in flashbacks to both 1975 and just over 30 years later in 2008 — is told via a combination of narrative action and the music of a five-piece rock group mostly performing songs of LA-based Dengue Fever. While the music realizes the Cambodian psychedelic sound of the 60s and 70s, it very much evokes American pop music.

Geena Quintos and Jane Lui

The cast of six all play dual roles throughout the show. In 2008, Neary (Geena Qunitos) is a lawyer in Cambodia trying to bring “Duch” (Bay Area favorite Francis Jue), a former Khmer Rouge leader, to trial for atrocities committed over 30 years earlier. Her father Chum (Joseph Ngo), surprising his daughter with a visit, had previously escaped Phnom Penh; coincidently, Duch was his torturer where he was imprisoned years ago. Chum had been part of a rock band in Cambodia in 1975 (Ngo is effective as both as a middle-aged father and his younger, idealistic counterpart). During the evacuation of the city, the band was anxiously trying to record their first album and thus were left behind with no opportunity to escape.

Joseph Ngo and Francis Jue

Chum was the lead guitarist and male vocalist in the band and Southra (also Qunitos) was the lead singer. Her voice is a powerhouse both crooning background and belting out the rock sound a la Linda Ronstadt. Abraham Kim is the drummer/journalist and Moses Villarama is the handsome heartthrob guitarist and singer who plays Neary’s boyfriend as well as a prison guard. As the guard, he’s forced by his bosses to torture the prisoners, including Chum, whom he recognizes as his former friend & bandmate. Jane Lui rounds out the band on the keyboard and also plays a prison guard.

Francis Jue

Act One sets up the story with Chum trying to connect with his daughter and flashbacks to 1975 with the band playing on despite the chaos going of a city falling apart around them (shades of Cabaret). The band members are not quite grasping their fate as the airport is closed and all hopes of leaving are gone.

Geena Quintos and Joseph Ngo

Act Two has a much more somber tone. Most of the story involves the aftermath of the fall of the city. Chum has been captured and imprisoned with Duch as one of the Khmer Rouge leaders taking particular delight in torturing his prisoner. Underneath it all, it’s really his cowardice disguised as glee in having his foot soldiers carry out much of his dirty work. Jue’s sadistic performance fluctuates with perverse humor reminding me of “Dr. Evil” from the Austin Powers movies. The scenes of cruelty and torture are followed by soliloquies and speeches.

Joseph Ngo, Geena Quintos, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, and Moses Villarama

At well over two hours, the dramaturgy is a bit shaky. While Act One sets up the story and is broken up by several band performances, Act Two becomes a bit repetitious with endless torture scenes. The musicians are quite talented and all give strong acting performances, particularly Ngo as the tortured Chum. The show — billed as a Rock Epic of family secrets set against a dark chapter of Cambodian history — can be compared The Killing Fields and Miss Saigon.

Joseph Ngo, Geena Quintos, Jane Lui, and Moses Villarama

One of the memorable quotes is, “Facing the music of the past to come to joy in the end.” For both the characters and the audience, it takes a lot of brutality to get there.

Moses Villarama and Joseph Ngo

photos by Lynn Lane/Berkeley Rep

Joseph Ngo and Geena Quintos

Cambodian Rock Band
Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck
ends on April 2, 2023
for tickets, call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

Joseph Ngo and Geena Quintos

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