Nightmare or revelation? It’s Cambodian Rock Band, and it rocks

Cabmodian 1
ABOVE: The cast of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos and Moses Villarama. BELOW: Ngo and Francis Jue. Photos by Lynn Lane/Berkeley Rep

Cambodian Rock Band is such a unique show that it’s hard to describe. It’s the most uplifting story about human atrocities you can imagine. You could say it’s a play with music, but the music – performed live by the cast – is such an integral part of the story (and the emotion of it all), that you could call it a concert with play. There’s genocide and the uplift of great live music.

Whatever it is, it’s powerful and moving and a joy (and, truth be told, a terror) to behold on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. The exuberant cast keeps up with every tonal shift, time shift and musical cue in playwright Lauren Yee’s compelling story, and the experience slams the audience this way and that in the best possible way.

The roots of Cambodian Rock Band go back to 2016 and to Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works program. From there, the show has been produced in a lot of places – Oregon Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Rep, off Broadway to name a few – and it’s that off-Broadway production from the Signature Theatre that is making the rounds of major regional theaters, including Berkeley Rep.

Director Chay Yew dexterously blends all the disparate elements of Yee’s script into something wholly original. The show begins as a rock concert circa 1975 in Phnom Penh. The five-piece band is Cyclos, and they’re caught up in the excitement of recording their first album. Then everything changes. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot comes to power, launching a horrifying reign that ultimately led to the death of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. Amid the totalitarian terror, education, music and art were outlawed, and those who practiced such dangerous trades were systematically dispatched.

From the opening concert, we bounce to Phnom Penh in 2008 and the first war crimes trial related to the Pol Pot regime. A young Cambodian-American woman, Neary (Geena Quintos) is part of the legal team bringing Commrade Duch to justice after his stint as director of the infamous S-21 prison, which is estimated to have slaughtered 20,000 people. When the prison was liberated in 1979, only seven people appeared to have survived. But, as Neary discovers, there is a possible eighth survivor, and she needs to locate him so he can testify.

Cambodian 2

Just as her trial is about to begin, Neary’s father, Chum (Joe Ngo) shows up and wants to bring her back to the U.S. He fled the Khmer regime and doesn’t want his daughter mired in all that horror from 30 years before. But she is insistent, and the father-daughter struggle will delve into some tangled family history that is played out in flashbacks.

To say that Ngo as Chum is extraordinary really isn’t saying enough. He is called upon to sing and play guitar in the band, play the young Chum navigating the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and play the older Chum, a husband and father and American who would rather not re-live his Cambodian past. By turns funny, sympathetic and devastatingly dramatic, Ngo brings an astonishing level of energy and depth to his character’s remarkable journey.

Quintos as Neary is a defiant but sympathetic daughter following her own quest for justice, but she’s also a powerhouse singer in the band. Moses Villarama plays characters in both of the play’s eras and plucks a mean bass, while Abraham Kim wallops the drums (and some smaller roles) and Jane Lui tackles the keys (and prisoners at S-21).

Former Bay Area resident (but still Bay Area favorite) Francis Jue interrupts the opening concert to act as a sort of host for the evening and to guide us back and forth in time until he becomes a major player in the drama. Nobody can convey more charm or more menace than Jue, who is truly masterful in this show. And not for nothing, he plays a mean cowbell.

Unlike something like Life Is Beautiful the warmhearted(?) Roberto Benigni comedy(?) about the Holocaust, Cambodian Rock Band is not sappy or easy. Yee isn’t softening Pol Pot’s genocide in any way. The use of music – something the Khmer Rouge considered so dangerous they banned it – and specifically rock music (originals by the band Dengue Fever plus some vintage Cambodian surf songs and other period tunes) emphasizes the raging glory of humanity – and the human connection that art creates – even in the face of humanity at its very worst. An evening that begins as a concert ends as a transcendent event that feels enormous and full of hope.

Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band continues through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 2 1/2 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $21-$122 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Soft Power electrifies at the Curran

Soft Power 1
The cast of Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power includes (from left) Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured), Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito. Below: (from left) Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May in the production directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton on stage at the Curran Theatre. Photos by Craig Schwartz

Remarkable. Inspiring. Hilarious. Moving. There aren’t enough descriptive words to fully express just how wonderful and fascinating and exhilarating it is to experience Soft Power the new musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori now at the Curran Theatre.

Forget Go-Go’s pop musicals (sorry Head Over Heels). Hit the road, lame movie-to-musical adaptations (looking at you, Walk on the Moon). This is what it’s like to be in the presence of musical theater with bracing originality, thrilling artistry, abundant intelligence (and humor) and expert execution. Watching Soft Power feels important – it’s tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking, but it also feels somehow bigger than the average show. This stage contains a larger conversation about the musical theater form itself, our evolution as truly compassionate humans and about the state of our nation. This is easily the most important musical since Hamilton.

Describing Soft Power is challenging primarily because it has so much going on, which is one of its many charms. There are three main ingredients here: The King and I, Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign and China’s quest for “soft power,” which is the notion of ideas, inventions and culture that change the way people think.

This is also described as “a play with a musical,” and that’s appropriate because the musical that eventually transpires is dependent on the short play that precedes it. Once that musical arrives, audience members find themselves in high-concept territory because you’re not just watching a musical. You’re watching, essentially, a reversal of The King and I from the 22nd century. No more is the white lady in the foreign country taming the barbarians and teaching the king how to govern his own people. In this case, the cast is primarily Asian playing blonde, gun-toting Americans who are tamed by the kind-hearted Chinese guy, who also happens to fall in love with Mrs. Clinton.

Questions of appropriation and representation – those catch phrases that we hear so much about these days – are not merely asked here, they are considered and corrected and satirized. This is not a show that debates issues. It embodies them. It makes fun of them, pummels them, satirizes them, eviscerates them.

Soft Power 2

This immersive 2 1/2-hour experience is filled with laughs and parody and homage, both in Tesori’s lush, gorgeous score, with its echoes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim and so much more, as well as in Sam Pinkleton’s choreography with its pop-meets-de-Mille exuberance. Hwang’s book is sharp and pointed, but what’s so extraordinary about Soft Power is the way the show also works as musical storytelling. Just as one of the characters complains about the political incorrectness of The King and I she heaps praise upon that show’s beautiful score and emotional storytelling, or, as she describes it, the show’s “perfect delivery system.” You might not like aspects of King (like its caucasian perspective on Asian culture), but once the music starts, your heart surrenders. Something like that happens here. Tesori’s score, which is so wonderfully different from the superb work she created in shows like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home, bursts with life and humor and beauty. Hwang’s lyrics (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are direct and insightful.

Director Leigh Silverman manages the impossible here. She creates an emotional framework that allows Hwang and Tesori to careen all over the place while still creating characters and stories we care about. Just when it seems the musical will fully flip into full-on political buffoonery, we’re drawn back into human-scale emotion. And here’s another astonishing thing: everything here feels relevant, from the deconstruction of good ol’ American musical theater to the bashing of the television personality with all the bankruptcies who beat Hillary (he is referred to as the president or as “dear leader” but is never referred to by name). Silverman, Hwang and Tesori have taken our world – what feels like this exact moment – and turned it into art on a grand scale. How did they do that? When they get to the inspirational number at the end, it actually IS inspirational because it feels as if the actors are reaching down to your seat and offering you that little spark, that little push, that little reminder to keep going.

When Act 1 ends, and you’re thinking, “What in the world did I just see?” and then you consider this: “There’s no way Act 2 can continue on this tightrope. As with so many musicals, Act 2 will deflate the balloon.” But then Act 2 happens and it’s even better, and all those courageous leaps come together with emotional and intellectual pay-off.

Huge credit must go to the dynamic cast headed by Conrad Ricamora as our hero from China, Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton and former Bay Area stalwart Francis Jue as a playwright named David Henry Hwang. They are supported by an outstanding ensemble that can handle every tonal shift thrown at them and then some.

Set designer David Zinn, lighting designer Mark Barton and costume designer Anita Yavich bring clarity and humor to the stage as well and keenly differentiate between our real 21st world and the future musical world of the 22nd century. The flashy stage is often like the circus meets grand opera but with many, many, many more guns.

Soft Power (which can actually be defined by its title) makes it very clear that democracy may break your heart, but this brilliant show also has the very real power to restore your faith in art as reflection, renewal and, perhaps most importantly, revolution.

Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power continues through July 8 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Visit for information.

Fathers and sons: Aurora’s Awake and TheatreWorks’ Yellow

Awake and Sing
Yellow Face

TOP: Ralph and Myron (l-r, Patrick Russell and Charles Dean) have a father-and-son talk as Moe (back, Rod Gnapp) listens in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Awake and Sing! Photo by David Allen
BOTTOM: Playwright D.H.H. (Pun Bandhu, left) takes a lesson on the American dream from his father, H.Y.H. (Francis Jue, right) in the Bay Area premiere of Yellow Face at TheatreWorks. Photo by Mark Kitaoka


As long as there have been fathers and sons, one has wanted to please the other and often encountered difficulty in doing so.

Two very different plays opened in the Bay Area last weekend, and each has, at its center, a touching father-son story.

In the Aurora Theatre Company’s Awake and Sing!, Clifford Odets’ 1934 slice-of-Depression-life family drama, the son Ralph (Patrick Russell) is constantly being brow beaten toward the life of a successful capitalist –not by his father but by his domineering mother, Bessie, played with ferocity by Ellen Ratner. Ralph’s father, Myron, is the epitome of meekness. Though he means well, Myron (the ever-compelling Charles Dean) can’t help but be his wife’s best ally, even when she’s lying and scheming and doing what she thinks – in her sometimes warped way – is best for her family.

Ralph can’t turn to his father for a role model. Instead he turns to his soulful grandfather, Jacob (Ray Reinhardt), who knows that in spite of Bessie’s ranting about the importance of money, life can’t be printed on dollar bills. But Jacob, like Myron, can’t really stand up to Bessie, who admits to her children that she had to be both father and mother to them.

There’s a fascinating friction between the generations in director Joy Carlin’s production. We see Jacob’s generation, which has found meaning in struggle and ideas that actually mean something in the life pursuit. Then we have Bessie’s generation reacting against that – grabbing for money and security no matter what the spiritual cost. And then there’s Ralph’s generation, seeking something beyond the struggle, beyond the financial fixation.

No one’s really happy, but everyone’s up against it. There’s a sadly sweet scene toward the end of the play when Myron, who has gone to bed after much emotional unrest in the family, returns for an apple. He has no way of knowing that his children, Ralph and daughter Hennie (Rebecca White), have undergone seismic emotional shifts that will affect the course of their lives.

No, Myron, chomps on his apple and heads back to bed and to the all-consuming Bessie.

Meanwhile, down at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, TheatreWorks is traversing a more contemporary father-son relationship in David Henry Hwang’s mockumentary Yellow Face.

Hwang makes himself the central character in this true/false account of racial uproar in the theatrical community and beyond. There’s farce and there’s dramatic/political heft here as Hwang (played by doppelganger Pun Bandhu) recounts his adventures trying to prevent Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian Welsh actor from playing a half-Asian pimp in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. But then, in creating a follow-up play to his Tony-winning M. Butterfly, Hwang writes a racial farce and accidentally casts a Caucasian man (Thomas Azar) in the role of an Asian man pretending to be Caucasian to get a role in a play.

Hwang plays fast and loose with the facts as the theatrical brouhaha becomes overshadowed by systematic racism perpetrated by the American government on Asian Americans in the 1990s.

Amid the farcical chaos of director Robert Kelley’s production, one relationship emerges with emotional depth. That relationship is between Hwang and his father, Henry Y. Hwang, who founded the first Asian-American-owned, federally chartered bank in the U.S. Francis Jue, a longtime Bay Area favorite, plays the elder Hwang (among many other roles) and reveals just why the role won him an Obie when he performed it off Broadway at the Public Theater.

Jue, playing well beyond his actual age, makes Henry a fascinating man – a self-made Chinese immigrant who always idolized Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper and who ended up a wealthy man. Henry is funny, especially when trying to get tickets to Miss Saigon through his son, but when things turn serious in the second act, Jue keeps pace with the jagged turns of the script and imbues the character – indeed the play – with heart.

Hwang has clearly been deeply affected by his relationship with his father, and in many ways, in spite of the tornado of issues swirling through the play, Yellow Face seems in many ways to be a simple tribute to the elder Hwang, a man the playwright missed and wanted (or needed) to conjure.


Aurora Theatre Company’s Awake and Sing continues through Sept. 27. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

TheatreWorks’ Yellow Face continues through Sept. 20. Call 650-463-1960 or visit for information.

It’s good to be…Colman and Francis

Two wonderful actors, formerly of the Bay Area, are having some good days in the New York theater world. We’re sorry they’re not having good theater days in the Bay Area, but we wish them well. Here’s the scoop:

Colman Domingo is starring in the Tony-nominated Passing Strange, which, incidentally, just won three Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical, two Obie Awards including Best New American Theatre Piece, two Theatre World Awards, and the top prize from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle (whew). If that weren’t cause enough to celebrate, Colman will direct New Professional Theatre’s production of Lisa B. Thompson’s Single Black Female, a comedy about “single black women and their search for love, dignity and clothes.” The production will star Soara-Joy Ross and Riddick Marie, at The Duke on 42nd St. in Manhattan. The show will run June 10-29.
Colman first directed the play in March of ’99 at San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros.

Francis Jue, San Francisco native and a favorite at TheatreWorks in Mountain View (though that’s hardly the only local stage he has graced), won an Obie Award for his featured performance in David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face.
Here’s a nice story on Francis from No word on whether Francis will be in the production of Yellow Face closing Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 2008-09 season. Here’s hoping…