Debut of Cambodian Rock Opera Evokes Emotion, Awe

The rock opera “Where Ele­phants Weep,” which premiered Fri­day, starts like most Cambodian plays—with a storyteller, portrayed by Ieng Sithul, introducing the story accompanied by a gentle melody on traditional Khmer instruments.

But rock music soon erupts as Sam, played by Michael K Lee, shows his anger at being confronted with traditions he does not un­derstand and childhood memories of the Khmer Rouge period he would rather bury.

In a story taking place in the mid-1990s, Sam and his friend Dara, portrayed by Marc de la Cruz, come to Cambodia and enter a monastery for a few months; this is their first visit since going to the US as re­fugees after the Khmer Rouge fell.

But Sam loses his focus when he falls in love with Bopha, a woman pledged to an arranged marriage.

The characters portrayed in “Where Elephants Weep”—a production of the scale and quality that has made New York and London musicals famous—feel very real, dealing with the struggles of everyday people in the country. Moments of pain or anger succeed love scenes as traditional music follows rock reflecting the emotions that the actors express with their exceptional voices to the music of Him Sophy.

The singing is never short of beautiful, whether it is Dara singing of having found peace in Cambodia or Sam and Bopha, played by Diane Veronica Phelan, singing a duet af­ter their first meeting.

As one Cambodian spectator said at Friday’s premiere, “I just wanted to close my eyes and listen to the music and the voices.”

The singing turns truly intricate when Bopha, her elder sister Navy and her brother Khan fight over her refusal to marry Khan’s business partner as he had arranged: They sing together, but along distinct intertwining melodies. In that scene Khan, interpreted by Eric Bondoc, reminds his sisters of how he protected them in refugee camps, letting the teenager who fought hard for them pierce through the shady businessman he has become. Navy, played by Christine Toy Johnson, appears as a strong and typical Cambodian woman working to keep her family together, but also wishing for Bopha’s happiness.

The most genuine relationship in the musical, their singing filled with warmth whether they agree or argue, is the friendship between Sam and Dara. By comparison, the acting of Phelan makes the love be­tween Sam and Bopha less convincing. The usual duo who narrate the story in Cambodian theater have been replaced by a trio—Tony Re-al, Mel Sagrado Maghuyop and Dang Kosal—rapping and bringing out the humor of situations.

Among the especially striking scenes staged by director Robert Mc­Queen are Vuth Chanmoly and Sam Sathya dancing a classical love duo as Sam and Bopha sing while embraced; Sam’s family appearing as they were prior to the Khmer Rouge era, dress­ed in saffron-color clothing to show they are but a mem­­ory; and beer girls and customers dancing on a Khmer platform, their movements slowing into a stylized pantomime.

Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Chenla Theater.

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