Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Ten years ago, the indie rock band, The Flaming Lips, put out a beautiful, intriguing and rather whacky concept album, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." The critically-acclaimed disc attracted a decent following, but the chances of it ever being produced into a theatrical production seemed about as likely as the chances of having a Broadway play called "The Motherfucker with the Hat."
Fortunately in the decade that has passed, the latter has indeed hit Broadway, and "Yoshimi" has made its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, near San Diego. The Broadway prospects for "Yoshimi" seem equally bright.
The musical, featuring music from several Flaming Lips’ albums, tells the story of a beautiful, young Japanese-American girl who discovers she has a rare form of lymphoma. The "pink robots" of the title are actually the pink blood cells aggressively attacking her body’s immune system. The battle of the woman against her disease is represented by a dozen humans dressed in pink LED-lit robot suits doing battle against Yoshimi and against a giant 14-foot pink robot representing the experimental medical protocols she’s enduring.
While Yoshimi battles the cancer ravaging her body, she also must endure being abandoned by her boyfriend Nik who can’t handle the stress of her illness on their relationship. Coming to the rescue however is her former, obsessive paramour, Ben, a rather nerdy young slacker who assists Yoshimi in her time of need and slowly wins back her heart.
The production is directed by two-time Tony and Olivier award-winning director, Des McAnuff. As he demonstrated with two other former La Jolla Playhouse productions, The Who’s "Tommy" and the mega-hit "Jersey Boys," McAnuff can bring tricky rock musicals to the stage with inspired genius. He and his creative team have done so again here and even topped themselves.
Yoshimi is a technical masterpiece, delivering an eye-popping assortment of imaginative visuals rarely found at a regional non-profit theatre. From the glowing pink robots to a dinner scene where all of the items on the table start floating in the air, McAnuff and company have made a musical that often looks like scenes from a Japanese anime comic book, but flows together seamlessly. The costumes, sets, lighting and sound design are all first-rate, and the work of professionals working at the top of their game.
The set is framed by a glowing white border, giving one the notion you’re watching a futuristic production on an iPad, and glowing planets descend at times on some sort of round video screens. Major money was spent on the production, and every cent of it shows.
The cast is as impressive as the hi-tech setting. Kimiko Glenn is a perfect Yoshimi, demonstrating both strength and fragility and singing with crystalline beauty.
Paul Nolan’s Ben, who goes from being the jilted ex-boyfriend to the true love of her life, is perfectly cast and his voice matches quite well with that of Flaming Lips’ lead singer Wayne Coyne’s -- sounding like a cross between Neil Young and Kermit the Frog, but in a good way. Nolan might be remembered as playing Jesus in the recent Playhouse production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," which made the jump to Broadway with him in the lead role.
The other two dozen cast members are also quite good, and alternate roles throughout the show between their primary parts and playing the evil pink robots.
The Lips’ music fits the show perfectly, and while not all lyrics can be heard clearly at all times, the action on stage makes it clear what is taking place, even with a minimum of actual dialogue in the show.
Far from a traditional Broadway musical, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" is a ground-breaking new work, certain to attract new and younger audiences to the theatre, in much the same way "Rent," "Spring Awakening" and "Book of Mormon" have done. Despite the spectacular technical wizardry, the show has true heart and enormous human emotion, sure to appeal to anyone who surrenders themselves to the show.
As the tears streamed down this critic’s face at the end, while the Ben character sang the uplifting ballad, "Do You Realize?" I was thrilled to see the show had the same effect on the elderly couple in their ’70s sitting next to me. Nice to see it’s not something that can only be enjoyed by the younger set.
While no plans have been announced for Yoshimi’s move to the Great White Way, it certainly deserves to, with cast and crew intact. It would be one of the most original and moving shows to hit the Big Apple in years.
"Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" runs through Dec. 16, 2012 at the La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA. For info and tickets, call 858-550-1010 or visit the LaJollaPlayhouse.org