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West meets East amid show tunes and chants in 'Elephants'

It is no small undertaking for executive producer John Burt , Cambodian composer Him Sophy , and Canadian librettist Catherine Filloux to fuse East and West, traditional past and fast-living present, with a mix of Broadway show tunes, rap, and Buddhist chants in "Where Elephants Weep."

Billed as an opera but closer to a musical, "Elephants" was presented at Lowell High School in preview performances last weekend, directed by Victor Maog . The auditorium was packed for the production, which is being reworked in anticipation of a world premiere in Phnom Penh. Cambodian-Americans from several states were there, as well as many young people from Lowell.

The production runs full-throttle for 2 1/2 hours without intermission, and on Saturday it flowed smoothly. The romantic leads, Marc de la Cruz and Marie-France Arcilla , looked beautiful and managed a lot of difficult high-pitched singing. There were backup pop-rock and traditional Cambodian bands on opposing platforms and a string ensemble in the pit.

"Where Elephants Weep" has a long, tangled , and often implausible plot. Sam, our hero, is a young Cambodian-American who has given up a career as a Sony executive to return to Phnom Penh to cleanse his soul. He and a childhood friend who fled Pol Pot's cruel reign in the 1970s enter a Buddhist monastery. "He knows Madonna but not at all his soul," says a singer in the prologue.

Sam must be in his early 30s, yet he acts like a kid in the first rush of hormones. A beautiful pop singer named Bopha visits the temple and hears Sam chanting. They exchange glances, and before long Sam wants to leave the monastery . The evil entrepreneur Khan, the brother who manages Bopha's career, encourages the flirtation, hoping it will lead to a contract, while planning to marry off Bopha to a business partner.

In a gently funny scene, Sam asks the Abbot (Ieng Sithul ) if he may leave, but is denied. His friend, Dara (Eric Bondoc) , is allowed to go work for an orphanage. Sam leaves anyway and sets out to find Bopha. Dara reluctantly helps Sam arrange a reunion. After Sam and Bopha pledge their love, she is called home on a trick and married to Khan's associate. Sam drowns his sorrows at a nightclub. Skip to the end: Bopha runs away from her arranged marriage and begins writing her own songs, good songs with Cambodian roots; Sam returns to the temple to complete his initiation.

The score includes many beautiful passages of traditional Cambodian music, much of it sung by Sithul (with supertitles). In several pieces, Him fuses Eastern and Western styles to moving effect, notably in the duet "No Mothers," in which Bopha and Sam sing of their fate as orphans without mothers to teach them the "old songs," while, behind them, a woman and child in Khmer costume do a traditional dance.

There's not nearly enough of this. More than half of the score is blaring, generic show music of an "American Idol" variety, and the words cliche s: "You're my lyric, my only poem," Bopha sings of Sam. (Songs of this school are either "It's all about me!" or "It's all about you!") In addition, as if some Broadway show doctor wanted to pump up the production for a young audience, we get orgiastic choreography in a bar scene, clumsy rap from Khan's bodyguards, a few unnecessary F-words, and glimpses of the buff de la Cruz half-naked, taking off or putting on his monk's robes. It's curious how much we get of what we're supposed to disapprove.

The rich back story, with its moral implications, is undeveloped. Both Sam and Dara, we are told, were child soldiers under the Pol Pot regime, and so presumably responsible for many murders. You read in the program notes that Sam's memories prevent him from "committing" to Bopha, but nothing is made of this onstage. Instead the romantic quest becomes the consuming focus, evil is externalized in the cartoon characters of Khan and his rap-singing thugs, and the chorus sings "Good always wins." Tell that to those murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

By trying to please everybody, "Elephants" leaves a muddled message.

(Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, a review of the opera "Where Elephants Weep" in yesterday's Living/Arts section misstated the nationality of librettist Catherine Filloux. She is American. The review also mistakenly stated that a string ensemble was part of the performance. Though a string quartet was planned for the production and mentioned in press materials, it was pulled before the performance. And because of a reporting error, the review overstated the length of the production. That night, the running time was about 1 3/4 hours.)


Where Elephants Weep

At: Lowell High School, Saturday night