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Weighing the balance of song, story, and history in ‘Cambodian Rock Band,’ ‘Marie and Rosetta'

Matthew Yee and Aja Wiltshire in "Cambodian Rock Band" at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.Liz Lauren courtesy of Victory Gardens (custom credit)

Outwardly, Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band’’ and George Brant’s “Marie and Rosetta’’ could not be more dissimilar, standing a world apart in time, space, and scale while telling very different stories that unfold in radically different circumstances.

But live musical performance is central to the structure and spirit of both plays, and, more important, both are driven by an inextinguishable belief in the special, almost mystical, bonds that form when people come together to make music.

In the Greater Boston Stage Company/Front Porch Arts Collective coproduction of “Marie and Rosetta,’’ directed by Pascale Florestal, music serves as the slow-developing glue in 1946 Mississippi between the legendary gospel singer/songwriter/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, the young acolyte with whom Rosetta is about to perform. For reasons that will later become clear, Rosetta and Marie are warming up in the showroom of a funeral home in “Marie and Rosetta,’’ where caskets line either side of the stage, their conversation regularly punctuated by excursions into song.

Lovely Hoffman is exceptionally magnetic as Rosetta, whether delving into the soulful essence of tunes like “This Train’' and “Strange Things Happening Every Day,’’ or brandishing her guitar on uptempo numbers like one of the rock ‘n’ rollers Rosetta did so much to influence. As Marie, Pier Lamia Porter is somewhat tentative, as if the actress absorbed too much of her character’s deferential posture toward the larger-than-life Rosetta.


A deeper though not fatal problem is that playwright Brant, who managed to wrestle the wayward figure of Buddy Cianci into compelling theatrical shape in “The Prince of Providence,’’ lets the music do an excessive amount of the dramatic work in “Marie and Rosetta.’’ Standing back from in-depth characterization, Brant cedes too much emotional weight to his play’s songs.

Even though it’s a weight that Hoffman in particular carries with great panache and personality, and even though some scripted scenes do resonate — such as when the women discuss the trade-offs between career and family when the career in question is that of a performer on the road — there is still a certain thinness to “Marie and Rosetta.’’


Pier Lamia Porter (left) and Lovely Hoffman in "Marie and Rosetta," at Greater Boston Stage Company.Nile Scott Studios

By contrast, Yee (“The Great Leap,’’ “Hookman’’) took pains to build a multilayered story in “Cambodian Rock Band,’’ and the result is a powerfully gripping production directed by Marti Lyons at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

When the members of a Phnom Penh rock group have to find a way to survive in the 1970s as Cambodia is torn to bits by the Khmer Rouge genocide, the bonds forged by musical collaboration face the most hideous test imaginable. Three decades later, a father and his adult daughter face a mutual reckoning that is its own kind of test: of whether love can survive the trauma of history.

Our early guide through “Cambodian Rock Band’’ is a chillingly enigmatic figure named Duch (Albert Park, superb), who was once “Pol Pot’s chief torturer’’ as the head of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. It is Duch who welcomes us to Cambodia, which he calls “the capital of music,’’ as the action shifts to 2008 in Phnom Penh, where 26-year-old Neary (Aja Wiltshire) is working on an investigation related to the trial of Duch, the first Khmer Rouge official to be tried for crimes against humanity. (It turns out that Neary was raised in none other than Somerville.)


Of thousands of prisoners at Tuol Sleng, only eight survived (in this account); the identity of the eighth is unknown, and Neary is determined to find him. When Neary’s father, Chum (an expressive Greg Watanabe), shows up unannounced in her hotel room, he initially seems like a prototypical goofy dad. But the purpose of Chum’s visit to Cambodia soon is revealed, paving the way for an extended, harrowing flashback to the prison in 1978.

Throughout “Cambodian Rock Band,’’ relentlessly propulsive songs written by the band Dengue Fever serve as a combination of framing device, emotional touchstones, and reminder of the freewheeling cultural creativity that the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, did their utmost to destroy. They failed. Tyrants always do, in the end.


Play by Lauren Yee. Directed by Marti Lyons. Music direction, Matt MacNelly. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre with Victory Gardens Theater and City Theatre Company. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, through Nov. 10. Tickets $24-$66, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org


Play by George Brant. Directed by Pascale Florestal. Music direction, Erica Telisnor. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company and The Front Porch Arts Collective. At Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, through Nov. 10. Tickets $52-$62, 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.