Nov 18, 2012
By James Hebert
Courtesy of U~T - San Deigo
Yoshimi (Kimiko Glenn) faces down an onslaught of menacing androids in the world-premiere La Jolla Playhouse musical "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." — Kevin Berne
Robots have long lifted the human imagination. Who knew they could also carry a tune?
In the world-premiere musical “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” those blessed machines sing (a little), they dance (a little more), they serve as full metal metaphors (always).
As fleshed out, so to speak, through the music of The Flaming Lips, and directed with electric expertise by Des McAnuff for La Jolla Playhouse, they also help put on one circuit-blower of a show.
The inventive and at times fantastical “Yoshimi,” which is something like a prog-opera, takes its title, its songs (most of them) and its life-embracing yet elegiac vibe from the 2002 Lips album of the same name. But it draws much of its emotional punch from the mysteries of being vs. nothingness that robots can evoke.
McAnuff has hot-wired Lips leader Wayne Coyne’s lyrics together with some high-wire biomedical plotting involving a fight against deadly disease. (The show almost certainly marks the stage debut of the previously unheralded “circulating lymphoma cells.” Then again, not many major stage musicals have showcased songs akin to the Lips’ – unless I missed a number titled “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell” somewhere in “Carousel.”)
The production’s technology can be thrilling, especially in robot-battle scenes that masterfully calibrate elements of music, lighting, sound and visual design. And if at times McAnuff seems a bit too in love with such tech gambits as the text-message-style supertitles (which overxplain the action), he doesn’t let the show’s humanity or its central love story get crowded off the stage.
That’s right: There are people in “Yoshimi,” too. Talented ones – particularly the irresistible Kimiko Glenn (of the Playhouse’s “The Nightingale”) as the title warrior, a Japanese-American artist whose struggle to defeat a dire illness metamorphoses into a battle against the ‘bots, with whom she literally has bad blood.
Paul Nolan, who played the serene lead in McAnuff’s recent revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Playhouse and on Broadway, trades his crown of thorns for a bowler and bow tie as the charmingly odd Ben, Yoshimi’s spurned but persistent ex-lover.
Nolan sings with a folksy twang that’s often an eerie analog to Coyne’s own vocal style. The lead album track “Fight Test” becomes Ben’s show-opening lament over losing Yoshimi to the stockbroker Booker, played with smooth assurance (and a pleasing falsetto) by Nik Walker.
Very soon – abruptly, even – Yoshimi is felled by her first symptoms (cueing the tune “Mr. Ambulance Driver” from the Oklahoma City-based Lips’ album “At War With the Mystics”). The illness shakes up the love triangle, although in truth Booker seemed fated to be third wheel even when he was parading Yoshimi around on his motorcycle.
It also kicks off Yoshimi’s throw-downs with the rose-colored androids, which seem to take place in a fantasy world (although the show’s program lists the setting as “another planet in the recent past”).
The number “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part II,” with its flying, marching and ever-multiplying robots, is a tour de force of choreography (Bradley Rapier and fight director Steve Rankin); visuals (projection and video designer Sean Nieuwenhuis, master puppeteer Basil Twist, lighting ace Michael Walton); soundscape (Steve Canyon Kennedy); and musical performance (conductor Jasper Grant’s band and drummer Brian Dall in particular, under the musical direction of Ron Melrose).
Impressively, the tech went off without a hitch on opening night, even with ever-shifting elements that also take in Robert Brill’s sleek, futuristic sets and Paul Tazewell’s myriad (and evocative) costumes for the show’s nearly 20 cast members. (Among them are the Broadway-seasoned Tom Hewitt in a solid turn as the chief doctor, and Pearl Sun and John Haggerty as Yoshimi’s tradition-minded parents.)
The songs bring a rich variety of moods, from Glenn’s gorgeous vibrato on “Vein of Stars” (with its gentle acoustic guitar) to the full-ensemble rah-rah of “Race for the Prize” (which comes off like a slick presentation for a biotech company’s stockholder convention) to the loopy, loping fun of “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” which includes a “singing” Roombot.
And if the show’s climactic moment feels oddly muted (and some songs plug into the story more snugly than others), the wistfully pretty “All We Have Is Now” and “Do You Realize?” close the circle with a one-two gut punch of the bittersweet.
One of the musical’s most inspired touches is to have Ben infiltrate and inhabit the massive Unit 3000-21 robot, inciting its metal brethren to self-destruct from the power of love. (Well domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.)
Someday our robot overlords will be writing their own musicals (their own reviews, too). In the meantime, though, we can also thank the daring and ingenuity of McAnuff (the former Playhouse artistic director and the mind behind “Jersey Boys” and “The Who’s Tommy”) for bringing this one to vivid life.