PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Cambodian Rock Band” a Must-See at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Human history is an appalling parade of atrocities. Warfare is among the worst recurring nightmares, but perhaps even worse are purges within one nationality or ethnicity when large swaths of the population are swept up in an insane movement to create a new society.

That’s exactly what happened in Cambodia in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge took over the country, hell-bent on eliminating the past, to such an extent that they called the date of their takeover “Year Zero.” And as always happens when zealots gain control, they rounded up Cambodian intellectuals, academics, trained professionals, artists, and musicians with the intent of eliminating them.

Inspired by the communist takeover of Indonesia in 1965 and the Chinese cultural revolution—the “Great Leap Forward”—the zealotry of the Khmer Rouge was so extreme that anyone with knowledge of a foreign language, or even wearing eyeglasses, was suspected of being a subversive and a class enemy. Approximately 25% of Cambodian’s population perished in what was called the “Super Great Leap Forward”—a genocide perpetuated by their own countrymen.

…superb actors, dancers, and musicians—a stunning assortment of stage talents…

That’s the background of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through April 2. The interlocking core stories include a musician named Chum (Joseph Ngo) held in the notorious S-21 prison—really an extermination center where of approximately 20,000 prisoners, only seven or eight survived—and his return in 2008 to see his American daughter Neary (Geena Quintos), there working with a multi-national investigative group. There are also tangential references to ethnic animosities among Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Thai people.

The depiction of life in S-21 is lengthy and grim (set by Takeshi Kata) but book-ended by upbeat rock music, much of it derived from L.A. band Dengue Fever. The show opens in the mid 1970s with Chum’s band finishing their first album in a studio in the capital city of Phnom Penh, an effort that runs so late that they can’t escape approaching Khmer Rouge troops.

The band at work in “Cambodian Rock Band” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Berkeley Rep.

It closes with a rousing performance in the present by the same band—Ngo on guitar, Moses Villarama on bass, Jane Lui on keyboard and backing vocals, Geena Quintos on lead vocals, and Abraham Kim on drums.

They’re all superb actors, dancers, and musicians—a stunning assortment of stage talents. Prolific actor Francis Jue is outstanding as the MC, narrator, hyper-kinetic lead performer, and as the despicable head of S-21.

Francis Jue at work at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Berkeley Rep

The net effect for an audience is that Cambodian Rock Band is a sugar-coated historical horror story—the sugar coating being the opening and closing rock performances that help viewers forget their immersion in misery. Yee’s beautifully conceived and realized message is that art and music have power to transcend savagery.

We can only hope.

There’s widespread belief that Cambodian Rock Band originated at Berkeley Rep. In fact, the show has been performed many times over the past four years. Ngo and Villarama have performed in several productions. The set at the Roda Theatre was built at Berkeley Rep and will travel when the show goes on tour. However that plays out, Cambodian Rock Band is a fantastic spectacle and one of the most compelling productions so far this year.


Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com



ProductionCambodian Rock Band
Written by
Lauren Yee
Directed byChay Yew
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough Apr 2nd, 2023
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$49 - $123
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!