In Sickness and in Health

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots at La Jolla Playhouse

Though she’s a battler, we know next to nothing about Yoshimi.
  • Though she’s a battler, we know next to nothing about Yoshimi.

The La Jolla Playhouse is premiering what may be the world’s first social-media musical. Throughout Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, technology abounds. The spectacular effects may rival Broadway’s Spider-Man in complexity. But beneath the pyrotechnics and pseudo-profundity about living and dying, the story’s as thin as a text message.

Yoshimi isn’t just a homecoming for scenic designer Robert Brill, it’s his high-tech Rose Parade. This most inventive of designers paid his dues at UCSD’s MFA program, back in the ’80s, then created sets like nothing seen before at Sledgehammer Theatre. He has since gone to Broadway and beyond, often collaborating with Des McAnuff, co-creator of Yoshimi.

Brill’s set kaleidoscopes. It begins with a moon’s eye view of Earth, suspended three-dimensionally in deep space. A white border around the proscenium suggests either that the audience is in a starship or is watching the show through a gigantic iPad. The latter makes sense because what follows moves like an index-pinky flip through apps and features. Objects swoop down; others, like a wireless vacuum cleaner, glide about. Videos and projections make stationary cars and motor scooters seem to move, even turn corners. Balloons and planets and other orbs make frequent cameos. Scenes morph.

At one point, after a restaurant magically appears, Yoshimi and Ben, her ardent admirer in sickness and in health, begin to sip tall glasses of wine. Suddenly, as if Marc Chagall took control of the iPad, the glasses levitate, then a basket of bread, then napkins float buoyantly in the air. Though unforgettable, by this point the sight feels natural, even logical, since you’ve already watched Yoshimi dogfight 15 feet above the stage against Star Wars–like robots, and the creation of an Avatar-sized monster that may, or may not, be the answer to Yoshimi’s prayers.

Before you can ask “How could they do that?” an image vanishes and another appears. When the smoky pink robots march on stage, or circle over it, everything looks effortless. The genius of this show: most of us probably can’t imagine the coordination involved — computers, the fascinating puppetry of Basil Twist, labyrinthine cues, projections, live band, actors, dressers — all choreographed with the split-second editing of an MTV video

Michael Walton’s expert lighting includes such stark blackouts that only rarely do an apparatus or a stagehand’s shoes beneath the 14-foot avatar suggest someone’s operating the devices. But these Toto-pulls-the-curtain moments help underscore the unseen intricacy behind the effects.

The robots were Yoshimi’s white cells before cancer struck the young Japanese-American artist. Now they’re infected lymphocytes, pink cells she must confront. The musical makes the metaphor literal. Somehow — and it’s not fully clear — she turns herself “inside out.” As the months fly past, she wages war from her hospital bed and — à la the movie Fantastic Voyage — from within, or in some other dimension (again not clear). Her boyfriend Nik hasn’t the strength to support her. He sings “Waitin’ for a Superman” and pulls out. Porkpie-hatted Ben, who has loved Yoshimi all along, may, or may not, becomes the equivalent of Superman. He climbs inside the mighty avatar and what? Helps? Again, not clear, in part because the miking often muffles key lyrics and plot-points. Tickertape messages overhead only take one so far.

Along the way we hear that “love can heal.” Ditto, will power. And Yoshimi wonders if there’s a heaven or a hell. What began with promise devolves into standard generic meditations on life and departure. But though she’s a battler, we know next to nothing about Yoshimi — or Ben, or Nik, or her parents. Who are these people? Act Two opens with scenes from everyday life, which don’t reveal much about characters almost as robotic as the pink villains.

Not that the cast isn’t top shelf. Kimiko Glenn’s Yoshimi exudes a warrior-spirit and impressive physical dexterity. Nik Walker (Booker the jilter) could carry a show, and Tom Hewitt (Dr. Peterson) has. Hyper-talented Paul Nolan, who played the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar, narrates, as Ben, whose ardent songs tend to run together.

The music, by the Flaming Lips, is of a piece. Some label it “psychedelic,” but “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” it ain’t. Or “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” And, strange to say, the songs actually lull the pace. Though at times hypnotic, they repeat ideas and refrains long after the point’s been made (as in “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” which begins with the intriguing, “life without death is just impossible,” but then repeats the title again and again and again).

The musical has the same dwindling effect. After the first full battle in Act One, what follows chases the ghost of that extraordinary scene. Even the climactic confrontation, when compared to the visual wonders that precede it, is a letdown.

As a director, Des McAnuff is a master at combining words and images. For example, he made as much sense out of the Who’s Tommy as is humanly possible. Along with developing characters and clarifying the story, the challenge for Yoshimi involves communicating what co-author and Flaming Lips star Wayne Coyne said in an interview: “It’s almost like the disease has to win in order for her soul to survive. Or something like that.” ■

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, book by Wayne Coyne and Des McAnuff, music and lyrics by the Flaming Lips

La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD

Directed by Des McAnuff; cast: Kimiko Glenn, Paul Nolan, Nik Walker, Jesse Wildman, Michael Balderrama, Jaz Sealey, Julius Sermonia, Jason Sermonia, Mary Antonini, Jack Mikesell, Tom Hewitt, Katherine McGhee, Pearl Sun, Catherine Ricafort, Laurin Padolina; scenic design, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Michael Walton; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; conductor, Jasper Grant; videos and projections, Sean Nieuwenhuis; puppetry, Basil Twist; choreography, Bradley Rapier; music direction, Ron Melrose

Playing through December 16; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010

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