Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Cambodian Rock Band
La Jolla Playhouse
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

The Cast
Photo by Jim Carmody
In 2015, I reviewed the West Coast premiere of a play called Samsara, by San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Yee. In the review, I said that the play "marks Ms. Yee as an artist to watch."

Indeed, the prolific Ms. Yee has fulfilled that prediction with such plays as The Great Leap and Cambodian Rock Band, both of which have been seen widely, as well as with in-progress commissions galore. The 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Cambodian Rock Band is appearing at La Jolla Playhouse through December 15 in a co-production with Portland Center Stage at the Armory. Under Chay Yew's incisive direction, Cambodian Rock Band reveals itself to be far more than a play about a striving five-person combo during the height of the 1960s through 1970s music scene in this most musical of countries.

The play was inspired by and features the music of Dengue Fever, a Long Beach-based band devoted to rediscovering Cambodian pop music of this era. There is a Cambodian rock band onstage, and it does perform, several times in fact. The band even has its own enthusiastic fan, a man named Duch (Daisuke Tsuji).

As the play opens, it is 1975, and the band is striving to finish recording a demo tape before its leader Chum (Joe Ngo) departs for Paris with his family. Flash forward to 2008 Phnom Penh. Neary (Brooke Ishibashi), who is in Cambodia with her husband Ted (Moses Villarama), has been investigating the war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, particular the targeting of musicians and intellectuals for imprisonment and, ultimately, execution. Neary’s research has indicated that only a few have survived, and she has accounted for all but one.

Neary is interrupted by the sudden appearance of her father, who has studiously remained silent when she has emailed her mother and him about her work. The father has not only turned up from the United States without warning, but has his own reasons for doing so, reasons that he is reluctant to tell his daughter.

Ms. Yee likes to hold her plot points close and to reveal bits and pieces about her characters as suits her storytelling. So, it is not entirely surprising that both Neary's father and Duch the fan are more than they seem and become major figures as the play progresses. Yes, the rock band is an integral part of the play, and yes, music, once both extolled and nearly extinguished, plays an important role in the plot. But anyone who goes in expecting mostly a rock concert will quickly find themselves immersed in the sins and heroism of a horrific time in the wake of the sudden American withdrawal that ended the Vietnam War.

Most of the cast play multiple characters (the other performers are Abraham Kim and Jane Lui). They do so on a set designed by Takeshi Kata that has its own set of surprises to reveal, with a lighting design by David Weiner that features both glam and stark elements, a costume design by Sara Ryung Clement that covers both the Cambodia of the 1970s and the Cambodia of 2008, and a sound design by Mikhail Fiksel that does justice to both the characters' speech and the band's music. Matt MacNelly serves as music director.

Ultimately, much of the drama is played out between Mr. Ngo and Mr. Tsuji's characters, and both actors, under Mr. Yew's direction, do the playing memorably.

The Playhouse has given Ms. Yee one of her "in progress" commissions, and, given the appeal of Cambodian Rock Band, it will be good to welcome back this fascinating "artist to watch" for that commission's world premiere.

Cambodian Rock Band runs through December 15, 2019, at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. Performance times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available by calling 858-550-1010 or by visiting Performances run two hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.