A mini-trend in local theaters this season is staging musicals and plays with music that border on the definition of concert, but for varying degrees of book content. American Repertory Theater kicked things off with the wives of Henry VIII singing about their lives and marriages in Six, David Byrnes’ pre-Broadway American Utopia features songs from his most recent album loosely-connected by his spoken remarks, and now Merrimack Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and City Theatre in Pittsburgh, presents Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, a play that fuses history, family legacy, and rock concert to illustrate the power and importance of music.
Other than the concert aspect of the play, CRB bears no resemblance to either of the other shows in plot, concept, or dramatic impact. It focuses on a daughter’s attempt to unearth family history by journeying to Cambodia, her father’s homeland, and searching for a survivor from a brutal Khmer Rouge prison whose testimony could seal the fate of its tyrannical overseer. Set in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the play opens in April, 2008, when Neary (Aja Wiltshire) is surprised by her father Chum’s (Greg Watanabe) arrival from America as she and her boyfriend/co-worker Ted (Christopher Thomas Pow) are in the midst of preparing for the long-awaited trial of Comrade Duch (Albert Park), the war criminal.