In ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ at Arena Stage, music and message don’t mesh

A discordant tale of dissidence, “Cambodian Rock Band” at Arena Stage very much marches to the beat of its own drum set.

The production is something of an onstage mash-up — not a musical, but “a play with music,” to quote playwright Lauren Yee. The foundation of Yee’s fictionalized narrative is the Cambodian genocide — the class-driven eradication of some 2 million people from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot — but its framework is the rock-and-roll scene of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Cambodian rock music, crushed at the time by the ruling Khmer Rouge, is evoked here by the psychedelic songs of the Los Angeles surf band Dengue Fever. It’s a compelling prism through which to reflect on such a tragedy, as well as the endurance of art in the wake of unspeakable atrocities.

Yet there are fissures in that fusion. As overseen by director Chay Yew — in a production that premiered off-Broadway in 2020 before stagings in Houston and Berkeley, Calif., earlier this year — the play strains to connect its rockin’ interruptions to Yee’s weighty musings on the futility of suppressing trauma and the moral compromises made in the name of survival.

Issues also arise with Yee’s fourth wall-breaking flourishes, which cast the evening’s antagonist — Comrade Duch, head of the S-21 prison camp who, in real life, was convicted of crimes against humanity — as a genial emcee. Charmingly played by Francis Jue, Duch struts the stage with gleeful flamboyance and a sinister edge. “Genocide, genocide, genocide — boo!” he blurts out early on with an eye roll. But Yee’s intriguing attempts to humanize a monster feel incomplete, and the character’s tension-cutting metahumor is played for cheap laughs.

“Cambodian Rock Band” is most successful when the music is subtly incorporated, the fourth wall stays intact and Yee shines a light on savagery all too unfamiliar to many Americans. The 2008-set play centers on Chum (Joe Ngo), a survivor of the Cambodian genocide who returns to his homeland for the first time in 30 years to bring home his daughter, Neary (Brooke Ishibashi), a 26-year-old preparing to prosecute Duch for his crimes. Eventually, Yee takes us back to the late ’70s and reveals Chum’s tense, guilt-laden story of how he escaped Pol Pot’s regime.

The toughest acting task falls to Ngo, who sharply sells three versions of his character: the wide-eyed 18-year-old recording an album with his fledgling band; an imprisoned 21-year-old desperate to see another sunrise; and the fanny pack-wearing 51-year-old papering over his pain with overbearing dad energy. The cast is rounded out by Tim Liu, Abraham Kim and Jane Lui (doubling as the music director and supervisor, alongside Matt MacNelly), who charismatically inhabit members of Chum’s band, the Cyclos, and various ancillary characters.

Those extended flashbacks are cleverly communicated via Takeshi Kata’s vivid scenic design, as the neon signs of a more modern Phnom Penh rise into the rafters and leave behind only period-appropriate set dressing. And the intermittent songs are seductively sung by Ishibashi, who also plays the lead singer of the Cyclos. It’s unfortunate, then, that “Cambodian Rock Band” seems to drag whenever the actors pick up their instruments for a rollicking romp or ethereal interlude. Although it’s obvious the music was instrumental to Yee’s vision, its presence onstage is never quite in tune.

Cambodian Rock Band, by Lauren Yee. Songs by Dengue Fever. Directed by Chay Yew. Sets, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Mikhail Fiksel and Megumi Katayama; projections, Five OHM Productions; wigs, Tom Watson; music direction and supervision, Jane Lui and Matt MacNelly. About 2½ hours. $66-$105. Through Aug. 27 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.

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