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.
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”
La Jolla Playhouse
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 16.
Where: Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (UC San Diego campus)
Tickets: About $15-$100
Phone: (858) 550-1010
Read James Hebert's full review and more on utsandiego.com