Sunday, June 12, 2022

"Cambodian Rock Band" by Theater Mu and Jungle Theater

Originally planned for summer 2020, the Theater Mu / Jungle Theater co-production of Lauren Yee's play with music Cambodian Rock Band finally hits the stage at the Jungle, and to say it's worth the wait is an understatement. Part rock concert, part history lesson, part family dramedy, Cambodian Rock Band explores the complicated and tragic history of Cambodia in the latter half of the 20th Century through the lens of music, art, and one specific family. It's both an epic and an intimate story, and features fabulously unique music by the Cambodian indie rock band Dengue Fever, with fantastic performances by the mostly local and all Asian American cast. It's playing through the end of July, so you have plenty of time and no excuse not to see this ingenious new, innovative, and important work of music-theater.

We begin at a rock concert. Specifically, a Cambodian rock concert in 1975, a fusion of traditional Khmer (Cambodian) sound with Western rock music. It's soon interrupted by our host for the evening (more on him later), who explains what we're in for and introduces the story. We then jump forward to 2008, where American born and raised Neary is a young lawyer working on the trial of Khmer Rouge war criminal Duch, who was in charge of a prison and responsible for the death of 20,000 people. She receives a surprise visit from her father Chum, a Cambodian who lived through the terror of the Khmer Rouge before immigrating to America. What begins as a light-hearted father/daughter story - father wants the daughter to come home and be a real lawyer, daughter hides the fact that she's living with her boyfriend - turns darker as Neary discovers Chum's true history. Then we're back in the '70s witnessing that terrible history, until the story comes full circle back to 2008 for some resolution and healing.

promotional photo of the cast/band by Rich Ryan
Scenes are interspersed with musical performances that are integral to the storytelling, showing us
without words the rich cultural history of the Khmer people. The cast doubles as the band, each one playing multiple roles and displaying multiple talents. The rock band platform on a bare stage that we see at the beginning of the show splits down the middle and moves to either side, curtains falling away to reveal set pieces representing Neary's hotel room or the prison (scenic design by Mina Kinukawa). The play is well constructed in the way it weaves together timelines, locations, and realities, and the set beautifully allows those shifts to happen smoothly and clearly. Credit must also be given to director Lily Tung Crystal, Mu's Artistic Director, for navigating the changing tones of comedy, drama, and musical performance in a way that feels both natural and surprising.

Having graduated from the U of M/Guthrie BFA program just two years ago, Danielle Troiano has been on a few stages around town in recent years, but this is truly her breakout role. As Neary (and a '70s musican), she's able to showcase her talent in acting, singing (in both English and Khmer), and dancing, an all around phenomenal performance. As Neary's father and her boyfriend/his friend in the '70s, #TCTheater newcomers Greg Watanabe and Christopher Thomas Pow have both performed in this show previously, as evidenced by their nuanced, layered, funny and heart-breaking performances. Not to mention their expert guitar playing as they join the band. And remember our amiable host? It turns out he's Duch himself, playing the role in the second half of the story. Only Eric Sharp could make this Khmer Rouge criminal charming, talking to the audience and making jokes in a colorful jacket. But he's also scary as we see the dark side of the host, and the cunning war criminal.

Mayda Miller and Shawn Mouacheupao are the foundation of the band (on keyboard and percussion, respectively), the force behind the driving rock score (with music direction by Mandric Tan), and also play a few small roles in scenes. I've never heard music quite like this, and I loved it. A blend of '70s, rock, and traditional Khmer music, it's a really fun and interesting fusion that's compelling even when you can't understand the words.

Another thing I really loved is the '70s era costumes (designed by Khamphian Vang). Danielle's '70s character/performer wears the most amazing dresses, bell-bottoms, and even white go-go boots! The wigs (designed by Emma Gustafson) are pretty groovy too. The whole look of the rock band, from the costumes to the placement of the equipment on the raised platform stage, is spot on. We even get some rock concert lighting in the post-curtain call encore (designed by Amy Adelaide Nguyen and Karin Olson). The sound (designed by Sean Healey) is awesome too - full and well-balanced but not too loud. When "rock band" is the title you need to delivery on that promise, and this production certainly does.

Cambodian Rock Band is an exciting new piece of music-theater that tells the important story of the Cambodian people not just through their trauma, but through their music, culture, and family. This production combines the resources and audience of the Jungle Theater with Mu's incomparable skill and thoughtfulness in telling stories by and about the Asian and Asian American experience - a match made in theater heaven! Check it out through the end of July.