Is there anything less politically threatening than a rock band jamming to its own vibrant music? Tell that to the Khmer Rouge, which descended on Cambodia in 1975 and killed off some three million people, including many musicians. In Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian Rock Band,” the doomed, fictional band Cyclo is represented by actor-musicians with considerable musical chops and enormous affection for their ill-fated characters.
Yee’s supportive text is set in 2008, when Neary (Courtney Reed, lovely), an American-born lawyer and the daughter of feisty Cambodian-born Chum (Joe Ngo, laying it on thick), is in Phnom Penh with an international justice group preparing to take some notorious war criminals to trial. The contemporary squabbling between the thoroughly westernized Neary and her traditionalist father is cringe-worthy, but the vivid flashback scenes set in the 1970s are riveting.
In the play, Cyclo, the personable rock band hailed here, were among the 90% of Cambodia’s musicians who were killed during the genocide that decimated the country during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The onstage band plays music that is a combination of Cambodian radio hits from the era and songs composed by the contemporary group Dengue Fever, infectiously joyous in the exuberant singing style of Reed, who doubles here as vocalist. Most of the tunes are heavily influenced by Western surf-rock, with “Champa Battambang,” a gorgeous song that opens the second act, among the most memorable.
If you’re still following the wooly plot, Neary is searching for one more survivor of the genocide that wiped out all but a handful of some 20,000 prisoners that the Pol Pot handed over to a master torturer named Duch. Superbly played by Francis Jue, the man is a monster whose cruel methods are amply illustrated in one scene so intense that it’s almost unwatchable. Irony of ironies, both the prisoner and one of the prison guards turn out to have been members of the now defunct band of their youth.
In sharp contrast with the thin father-daughter conflict that advanced the first act, the prison scenes have more of a kick. When Chum is thrown in prison on suspicion of being a spy, he struggles to understand why old people and children are accused of spying and subsequently eliminated: “Our whole country is starving to death, and this is what the Khmer Rouge is worried about?”
Tellingly, these tough-to-take prison scenes are bereft of music. The band only figures in them because they, too, were snatched up in the wholesale acts of genocide. When the music does kick in again, the song is Dylan’s “Times They Are A-Changin,’” which actually makes little sense here. Better hang on for the rousing finale, when this ingratiating group gets down and rocks like it’s 1975.