Bob Dylan fans already know his music is revelatory. Now Twin Cities theater patrons can see that it literally saves lives.
In "Cambodian Rock Band," an imprisoned man named Chum is being readied for execution during the 1970s genocide by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime. When he tells a prison warden that he's a musician, the man asks Chum to play something.
On an electric guitar (sacrilege, we know), he strums and sings "The Times They Are A-Changin'." His voice — heartfelt, raspy and (don't stone me) better than Dylan's — wins him a reprieve, showing music's power to soften even the stone heart of a state-sanctioned killer.
This is one of many arresting scenes in Lauren Yee's memory play, making its local premiere in a gripping Jungle Theater and Theater Mu co-production. Five of the six actors play instruments, nimbly alternating between affecting drama and haunting rock 'n' roll in this summer must-see.
Directed by Lily Tung Crystal at the Jungle, the show comes with warnings and offers a safe space in the lobby for those who might find some scenes triggering. Those include a discomfiting killing at center stage (Annie Enneking choreographed the stage combat).
"Rock Band" toggles in time between the '70s and '00s as scarred survivor Chum (Greg Watanabe) revisits Cambodia for the first time since fleeing his homeland. His daughter Neary (Danielle Troiano) has traveled to Phnom Penh to help gather evidence for a war-crimes trial before starting law school. Her father, she soon learns, has a lot of secrets.
Watanabe, a Broadway actor who also plays bass in the show's band, gives Chum both weight and lightness. In the contemporary scenes with his daughter, he is a breezy American, earnest and quick to crack jokes. But in flashback, he is laden with worries.
Watanabe looks and sounds cool as the bassist, his grooves tight and in the pocket on an ingenious set designed by Mina Kinukawa, featuring curtains on either side of the stage that dock at the center before breaking apart and vanishing.
Troiano, a 2020 graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA program, also smoothly navigates split roles. As Neary, she runs a gamut of emotions, starting with surprise when her father shows up in her hotel room, then deepening as she begins to understand his secrets and silences. And as lead singer of the '70s band that gets Chum in trouble with the Khmer Rouge, Troiano is hypnotic, singing oldies in Khmer and new songs in English with a delivery that shortens the distance between past and present.
Eric Sharp plays the prison overseer, Duch — a real-life monster whom he invests with charisma and wit. Duch sees himself simply as a cog in a state machine, even if he is responsible for the death of some 20,000 people. Confident and magnetic, Sharp almost makes us believers, so strong is his performance.
The cast also includes Chicago actor/guitarist Christopher Thomas Pow as Neary's boyfriend and a band member turned prison guard; actor/drummer Shawn Mouacheupao, and actor/keyboardist Mayda Miller. Together, they give poignant life to Yee's script.
'Cambodian Rock Band'
Who: By Lauren Yee. Directed by Lily Tung Crystal for Theater Mu.
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends July 31.
Tickets: $45 suggested; pay-as-you-can. 612-822-7063 or jungletheater.org
Protocol: Masks required plus proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test.