Note: Since this review was posted, Manoa ValleyTheatre has extended “Cambodian Rock Band” through May 22. See MVT website for specifics.’
For me, the best thing about “Cambodian Rock Band” – playing through Sunday (May 15) — is that eye-filling, stage-expanding atmospheric set, designed by Michelle A. Bisbee. It depicts arcs of many hues of a ‘bow that dominates the stage, with ribbons of stripes enveloping the band to the right side of the stage, reaching out to the other side, and even spilling over onto the floor decor of the stage. Credit, too, to scenic artist/properties designer Willie Sabel for making the environment pop.
The scenics attract the selfie crowd and iPhoners who aim and shoot before the show, at intermission, and after the final curtain. When the set gets that kind of scrutiny, it evolves as a “character” in the storytelling.
It’s a beautifully bewildering statement that perhaps serves as a mindful reminder of the rays that depict the changing moods of the players. There’s a desk and a bit of furniture on the left side of the stage but there’s no denying: this trip to Cambodia will be remembered for this stellar rainbow.
Depending on what your expectations might be, “Cambodian Rock Band” is a tad challenging. It’s a little-known contemporary rock musical (it had an off-Broadway run, plus an indie film release) with historical and political implications of Cambodia in the 1970s, yielding questions that test your appreciation of non-traditional theater where the actors perform on instruments, too.
The play, by Lauren Yee, was bumped from MVT’s 2020 season due to the COVID pandemic, so it’s a bit tardy but provides a refreshing burst of invention. MVT is the first to stage the show in the islands.
The drama-with-music is a melange of different tiers, from a family drama to a staged rock concert, from a possibly tormenting drama about genocide to a dose of Dengue Fever (not the ailment but the rock band). This is foreign history put into words and lyrics that enhance a hip tempo. But a “Hamilton” it’s not.
Yee’s work is frequently wavering, with periodic disturbing turns, about a fictional band running afoul of the Khmer Rouge and potential demise, and tosses political bones with the reliance of prevailing surf-rock California vibes aired on Cambodian radio, with some tunes in the native tongue.
Yet the show is a rarity, with all but one of the seven-member cast singing and acting while performing on instruments and four actors have dual roles. Because several tunes are rock-oriented, be aware that the volume is occasionally loud.
The ensemble sashays in alternating time warps from the mid-70s to 2008 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the pearls are in the retrospective past, with costumer Kimmerie H.H. Jones fine-tuning the garb to reflect the era.
Neary (Kelsey Bachrens, attractive and agile) is a motivated American lawyer, who is a lead singer who delivers the Cambodian repertoire with authority; she is the daughter of Chum (Adrian Khactu, impressive as dad and a lead voice ), a Cambodian native, accused of being a spy and sent to prison. Not surprisingly, they are at odds with generational viewpoints.
Pou (Micki Yamamoto, sweetly fragile ) also tackles vocal leads, with bandsmen Ted (Michael “Mickey” Delara, dependable and comforting), Leng (Kevin Yann, fashionably young-spirited) and Rom (Jason Nomura, versatile) is the reigning musical director).
Duch (Brandon Caban, effective and sardonic) is the narrator/antagonist with a powerful grin.
This isn’t a production where you’ll be humming a tune as you head home, but a whimsical “Old Pot Still Cooks Good Rice” and “Champa Battambang” might be titles you’ll cheer. And a Bob Dylan tune also is tucked into the soundtrack.
There are a few ironic twists as the denouement sheds light on relationships, so be aware.
Remaining shows: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday, May 12) and Friday (May 13), 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (May 14) and 3:30 p.m. Sunday (May 15).
Tickets: $22 to $40
Reservations: (808) 988-6131) or www.manoavalleytheatre.com
And that’s Show Biz. …