December 9, 2012
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Courtesy of nytimes.com
Photo: Kevin Berne
LOS ANGELES — Whether it’s seducing the audience into suspending disbelief as seemingly normal folk burst into song, or, more basically, convincing us that what appears before us has some meaningful reality, theater is on some fundamental level a feat of make-believe.
So I reflected while watching “Nothing to Hide” at the Geffen Playhouse here in Los Angeles. This brisk hour of ingenious card trickery, performed by a pair of amiable young specialists in old-school sleight of hand, was one of three shows I caught on a trip to the West Coast, each involving make-believe of differing levels of sophistication. Also at the Geffen is Donald Margulies’s“Coney Island Christmas,” a holiday show that wraps a story of first-generation Jewish immigrants in New York around a children’s Christmas pageant: the first taste of the magical illusions of theater for many American kids.
Most ambitious was the new musical “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” a premiere production at the La Jolla Playhouse that supplements the musical theater’s traditional arsenal of fantasy-world effects with 21st-century innovations. Directed by the rock-musical specialist Des McAnuff (“The Who’s Tommy,” last season’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”), this visually bewitching show was inspired by the music of the alternative-rock band Flaming Lips.
Songs from the titular album, along with others from the group’s repertory, constitute the nearly sung-through score. The economical book drops us quickly into the story of a young woman, Yoshimi (the lovely Kimiko Glenn), whose boyfriend troubles fade into insignificance when she learns she has advanced aggressive lymphoma, a blood-borne cancer.
“Yoshimi,” which ended its run on Dec. 16, aims with an impressive forthrightness to push musical theater into the age of digital technology: I kept thinking of it as a musical crossed with a gaming app. The sets, by Robert Brill, are framed in a rectangular proscenium with curved corners that expressly seems to suggest a giant iPad looming over the audience. Much of the action is staged against a stark black backdrop, necessary to disguise the mechanics behind the elaborate puppetry (by the ingenious Basil Twist), mainly involving the flying robots of the title, representing the invidious cancer cells wreaking havoc in Yoshimi’s bloodstream.
The musical moves from scene to scene with a fluid swiftness that evoked the satisfying finger-swipe across the glossy surface of a tablet or a smartphone. What’s more, the minimal dialogue — much of it scary-sounding medical jargon delivered by doctors proposing different treatments — is often typed out in frames that descend from above, suggesting a series of superalarming text messages.
Mr. McAnuff and Wayne Coyne, the band’s lead singer, collaborated on the story, which is unquestionably a challenging one for musical theater. (“A New Brain,” by William Finn, is the only musical I can recall that similarly mines a cancer diagnosis for its dramatic possibilities.) Yoshimi’s symbolic battles are staged with nimble panache, with Ms. Glenn (or occasionally a dance double) engaging in martial-arts moves as Yoshimi attempts to stave off the multiplying hordes of villainous pink robots, glow-in-the-dark figures that reminded me of the 1982 Disney sci-fi movie “Tron.”
Mr. Twist’s most staggering contribution is a megarobot that towers over Yoshimi. Her adoring would-be boyfriend, the artsy, porkpie-hat-wearing Ben (Paul Nolan, latterly Jesus on Broadway, and with a reedy timbre redolent of Mr. Coyne’s), disappears into this monster at one rather bewildering point in the story, for reasons I couldn’t fathom. His rival for Yoshimi’s affections is her current paramour, Booker (Nik Walker, with a silk-smooth voice), a stock trader who somewhat abruptly abandons Yoshimi midway through her ordeal. (Nuanced storytelling is not the show’s strong suit.)
The many Flaming Lips fans in the audience at the performance I saw clearly were enraptured by the music. The group’s hypnotically mellow vibe, redolent of late Beatles and maybe the funkier Grateful Dead, gradually became a little monotonous. Always pleasant and founded on sweet, unaggressive melodies, the songs struck me at times as being too laid-back for the grim story: early on, when Yoshimi suddenly collapses and must be rushed to the hospital, the crooning groove of “Mr. Ambulance Driver” seems an incongruous fit for the dramatic moment.
Another incongruity — a little Jewish girl playing Jesus in her school’s Christmas pageant — is at the heart of Mr. Margulies’s “Coney Island Christmas,” based on a short story by Grace Paley (“The Loudest Voice”) and set mostly in Depression-era Brooklyn. The New York borough is home territory for Mr. Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who grew up there and whose plays include “Brooklyn Boy,” about a novelist struggling through a midlife crisis, and “Time Stands Still,” set in Williamsburg.
In the comparatively slight “Coney Island Christmas,” the young Shirley Abramowitz (a spunky Isabella Acres) is bitten by the stage bug when she plays the pivotal role of the turkey in the school’s Thanksgiving production. Elated to be chosen from among her multiethnic peers to portray Jesus in the Christmas show, Shirley is dismayed when her mother (a stiff Annabelle Gurwitch) raises heated objections, seeing the notion as an offensive betrayal of the family’s faith and identity. Shirley’s father (the sympathetic Arye Gross) shrugs and secretly tells Shirley to go ahead — but just don’t let Mama know.
Even at 90 minutes, “Coney Island Christmas,” directed by Bart DeLorenzo and running through Dec. 30, feels attenuated, as well as predictable and sentimental. Much of the fun derives from watching the actors portraying Shirley’s schoolmates shuffling awkwardly through their roles in the pageants: casting embarrassed or teasing glances at one another, rambling across the stage awkwardly like newborn foals, delivering their lines with zombified intonation as they stare saucer-eyed into the audience.
The actors do it all with delicious artlessness, but a little of this goes a long way. Watching the kids’ inept performances is initially great fun but ultimately irritating, perhaps because the pageants take up what feels like half the show. The sweet, trifling story of Shirley’s big moment onstage is also unnecessarily adorned with a contemporary framing device, in which the elderly Shirley narrates the story to her great-granddaughter (Grace Kaufman).
Playing in the Geffen’s smaller theater, “Nothing to Hide” was a slicker, simpler and more enjoyable evening’s entertainment. A popular hit that packs the small theater (by contrast, the larger Geffen space was half empty for “Coney Island Christmas”), it has been extended through Jan. 20. Created by and starring the gifted card tricksters Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimaraes, and written by Mr. DelGaudio, the production has an A-list Hollywood name below the title in its director, Neil Patrick Harris.
Although he is best known as a television star and recently as an impish television awards show host, Mr. Harris is also a longtime magic nerd. You probably didn’t know that he is president of the Academy of Magical Arts at the Magic Castle, a private club for enthusiasts in the Hollywood Hills. (You probably didn’t know such a title existed.)
Dressed in neat gray suits, Mr. DelGaudio and Mr. Guimares perform an hour’s worth of card tricks that left me in the proper dumbfounded state: the harder you try to fathom where those cards are coming from, and where they’re going, the more these engaging performers’ ingenuity leaves you baffled.
Describing the specifics of such feats is a pointless enterprise, like trying to translate into language the experience of riding a roller coaster. So I won’t bother, except to note that under Mr. Harris’s direction, these two keep ratcheting up the level of difficulty, even as they employ a naturally modest, self-mocking style that’s nicely in contrast to the brilliance of their illusions. (The slightly plump Mr. DelGaudio jokingly compares himself to the doughy mascot of the Bob’s Big Boy burger chain.)
Their easy rapport with the spectators blew right past my usual allergy to audience participation. And while you might suspect that some of the participants are plants, I can attest that at least one wasn’t, and I’ve still got the five of clubs to prove it.