Home»Culture»Part Concert, Park Rockumentary: Cambodian Rock Band Gives Voice and Sound to Those Almost Forgotten

Part Concert, Park Rockumentary: Cambodian Rock Band Gives Voice and Sound to Those Almost Forgotten

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Cambodian Rock Band (2019): Joe Ngo (Chum), Abraham Kim (Rom), Brooke Ishibashi (Sothea), Jane Lui (Pou), Moses Villarama (Leng). Photo courtesy of Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

What do you do in an untenable situation when you must make impossible choices under the worst circumstances? Well, pick up a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and sing and play your soul out, of course!

That is what the main character and storyteller, Chum, of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Cambodian Rock Band (playing through October 27) does. But like any story about a rock star, there are others trying to grab the spotlight and be the front man. Then, there are bandmates and family who get caught up in the drama too.

Duch, narrator and master of ceremonies, also has a story to tell about not sleeping. What keeps you up at night? Loud music, pain from an old wound, overwhelming emotions like guilt or shame, loss of friends, anxiety about the math teacher who makes you show your work or worse—the dark night of your soul? The OSF production of Cambodian Rock Band has all these expertly layered into a show that is part concert, part “rockumentary” and totally engrossing. A production that beautifully juxtaposes music with storytelling in a way that is simultaneously surreal and opium-den smooth.

“Music is the soul of the nation,” Norodom Siahanouk, former King of Cambodia, said. This statement speaks loudly when it is about a nation that was overthrown in a 1970 coup, had two million of its people murdered, and a portion of musical history almost entirely erased. Inspired by an actual compilation CD consisting of 22 songs from the late 60’s and early 70’s and produced in 1996 called Cambodian Rocks, OSF vibrates the Thomas Theater. The production includes renditions of these songs and a portrayal of the band, Dengue Fever, a California group who brought these songs back to life on stage. The play also uses elements and facts from the documentary, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” about Cambodia’s lost rock and roll to create a masterfully engrossing two-and-a half hours. It’s a shit storm worse than what actual Dengue Fever would bring on with humor for relief and fantastic acting.

There are always genius twists and turns with OSF and Cambodian Rock Band is no exception. The playwright, Lauren Yee, and OSF humanize a villain and make him likable and funny. Daisuke Tsuji plays the role of Duch in the performance reviewed, and was gripping. And, Joe Ngo who portrays Chum pulls off transitions in age, facial expression, mannerisms, tone and style with exquisite precision. And because he can do this, the emotions and story unfold in a way that make one so involved in the father daughter relationship that no matter if you are a father or daughter or have one or the other, you invest in the emotions and outcomes.

The talented two women, Brooke Ishibashi and Jane Lui, sing their hearts out and do it tonally and skillfully. I particularly liked the song, “Family Business” because of its timing in the show, gut-wrenching emotion and soulful sound. Moses Villarama is convincing and has the dubious role of playing Ted Leng, a man who finds that compromise is compromising. Even intermission was well-timed, so one could sort out all the historical and cultural references and then go back in and be engrossed some more. Big praise for the set design too.

It seems that Director, Bill Rauch, has done it again with a wonderful adaptation and apropos selection in Cambodian Rock Band.


Cambodian Rock Band
Through October 27
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Thomas Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer Street, Ashland
$46 – $123


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