There's a moment early on in Lauren Yee's play Cambodian Rock Band that left me subconsciously squirming. The scene takes place in 1975; the Vietnam War has ended, and a young rock band in Phnom Penh is discussing what life will be like once the American troops withdraw. The bassist, Chum (Greg Watanabe), is paranoid and terrified of what the communist party, Khmer Rouge, will do in the absence of U.S. supervision. But guitarist and lead singer Leng (Christopher Thomas Pow) assures him that the Americans wouldn't leave millions of vulnerable Cambodian citizens high and dry.
But this is exactly what happens. The American military leaves Cambodia and over the next four years, Khmer Rouge carries out a genocide that leaves 2 million people dead.
While it feels cruel in the moment to have to watch Leng's earnest faith in American goodness knowing what his future likely holds, City Theatre's Cambodian Rock Band is the opposite of cruel. It's a generous and electrifying experience with far more seat-dancing than squirming.
Like the name says, this is the story of a Cambodian rock band in 1975 (including live performances during the play); and the modern-day life of Chum's Cambodian-American daughter Neary (Aja Wiltshire), who works in Phnom Penh trying to locate Khmer Rouge henchmen who have eluded capture. At the show's outset, she thinks she's located one of the most evil and slipperiest of them all. But before she dives too deep into that mystery, Chum, who now lives in America, shows up unexpectedly to hang with his daughter and marvel at all the fancy cosmopolitan indulgences that have come to Phnom Penh since he fled 30 years prior. There's a place that sells foot baths where tiny fish eat the dead skin from the bottom of your feet — Chum would really like to try it.
But the excited, dorky-Dad energy Chum exhibits with his feet being nibbled by fish is replaced by anxiety, guilt, and palpable fear during the flashbacks. It's an eerie trick to pull, alternating between a charming, giddy old man and a deeply distressed young man. Watanabe navigates the transitions with considerable humanity, and it's great fun to watch the nervous, but loving energy between Chum and Neary.
The best scenes, however, are the rock shows. The music includes songs from Dengue Fever, a contemporary rock band that mixes psychedelic rock with Cambodian pop. The titular band consists of Chum, Leng, lead vocalist Sothea (also played by Wiltshire), drummer Rom (Peter Sipla), and synth-player Pou (Eileen Doan). It's wildly entertaining to witness the band’s drama play out subtly during performances and the music is simply phenomenal. The songs are subversive, fun, funny, and powerful and a good match for all the subversive, fun, funny, powerful parts that happen when the amps go silent.