In Southeast Asia the term “cabaret” almost always means some sort of gender-bending performance. Siem Reap’s Rosana Broadway bills itself as an “international cabaret show” but it could more accurately be described as a “Bangkok-style ladyboy cabaret show,” and it’s one of Siem Reap’s most underrated nights out.
Rosana Broadway has dozens of dancers and performers and the choreographed show is filled with impressive sets, extravagant costumes, singing (well, lip-syncing), dancing, and general merriment. The show is partly cultural and and partly outlandish — while it is widely known that all of the cast members are or once were boys, the website gives no hint about the performers’ transgender status, and many of the TripAdvisor reviews seem to miss the point entirely. In Siem Reap, Rosana Broadway is known as the biggest ladyboy (katuoey in Khmer) show in the country. Both terms are not particularly polite, but it’s hard to describe one of the show’s main draws without using them.
The evening features traditional songs and dances from many Asian cultures, and transgender performers are the star of the show. The exception is the Cambodia Apsara dance, which is done entirely by biologically female performers at the behest of the Ministry of Culture. More impressive is the Hanuman, or monkey king, dance involving weapons and choreographed tumbling. Other acts include a Japanese love ballad and a traditional Chinese tune.
When we went, the audience was entirely Korean and the there were hoots of appreciation when a traditional Korean buchaechum fan dance was performed against a neon-flecked backdrop of a Korean Buddhist temple. Less traditional but no less exciting to the audience was a tepid rendition of “Gangnam Style” and Psy’s follow-up hit, “Gentleman.” A nod to the West came in the form of a spirited performance of Jennifer Lopez’s hit “On the Floor,” which featured dozens of dancers in feathered headpieces and a lead performer costumed as JLo in a top cut to the navel.
In a bit of comedic relief amid the parade of good-looking performers, a chubby, comically unattractive performer chases a handsome man until she finally convinces him, with the help of a wad of bills, to be her fellow. But her happiness turns to outrage when she discovers that he’s still in love with someone else, a beautiful woman who joins him in laughing at the lovelorn fatty. With exaggerated gestures the spurned woman abandons her dignity and humiliates herself, to roars of laughter from the audience.
My favorite was the actor who did a duet playing both the male and female characters, wearing the clothes for both (a suit on one side, a cocktail dress on the the other) and using the stage curtain to great effect as he flipped between characters, convincingly managing to sexually harass himself.
Despite my preconceptions about what a cabaret show in Cambodia might entail, the night was family friendly and lavishly produced, with costumes and sets that wouldn’t be out of place in Vegas (or at least Reno). The owner is Thai, as are some of the starring cast, but most of the performers are Cambodian, including many who’d never worked in the entertainment industry before Rosana Broadway opened in 2012. Originally the ensemble was heavily Thai, but now, after much training and practice, the show is predominantly Khmer.
The finale is the “We Are the World” of the ladyboy revue, with performers in flamboyant versions of the national dress of various Asian countries joining together to extoll the virtues of racial harmony (or something like that). Everyone is represented, from Vietnam to Indonesia, and actors holding flags of various countries race around stage to drive the point home. All in all, the show was an unexpected delight, and the high-quality production was all the more surprising for being right here in Siem Reap.
Tickets for Rosana Broadway are $30 for regular (“deluxe”) seats and $40 for VIP seats, are closer to the stage. The term VIP is thrown around rather loosely, as the 554 seats closest to the stage are termed as such, and only 432 are merely “deluxe.” Reduced rates are offered for children, based on height — kids that are under 100 cm (3’4″) are free and those between 100 and 140 cm (4’7″) are half price. If you’re price-sensitive, shop around, as there are deals online and many travel agents will be willing to give you a lower price than the rack rate. Daily shows start at 7:30 p.m. and last about 90 minutes. During high season there are additional shows every night. After the show, audience members can take photos with their favorite cast members for $1 apiece.