Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
La Jolla Playhouse

Kimiko Glenn
In 2012, San Diego theatres have presented a larger-than-usual number of world premieres. One of those, Hands on a Hardbody, has been announced for Broadway before the current season ends and another, Allegiance, has announced that it expects to open during the 2013-14 season. Nobody Loves You and Harmony, Kansas are also good bets for New York productions.

But, my vote for best new musical of 2012 goes to the just opened Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, performing through December 16 at La Jolla Playhouse.

Primarily, my choice revolves around the richness and maturity of the material, by Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips bandmates. Debuting as an album in 2002, Yoshimi's psychedelic electronica score has been widely regarded as one of the top pop projects of the new millennium. Its complex harmonies, meditative lyrics, and consideration of big questions relating to life and love make it a good candidate to jump from the recording studio to the stage.

Former Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff is on paper a good candidate to make a piece as Yoshimi theatrical. His production history boasts a successful Broadway venture with The Who's Tommy, a psychedelic rock album from an earlier era. He has also experimented, successfully and less so, with theatrical technology, both at La Jolla and in his most recent post at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.

For this production, Mr. Coyne and Mr. McAnuff have made Yoshimi's story more coherent and theatrical, and Mr. McAnuff has staged it as a spectacle, employing minimal physical sets but lots of projections, and black light, which makes the white, hot pink, and sunshine yellow color scheme appear fluorescent. In addition, the black light allows for the onstage operation of a fourteen-foot high robot puppet, designed by Basil Twist, and for including a number of flying objects that would have been too restricted in movement if put on wires.

The resulting production tells a simple story with style and sophistication: Yoshimi (Kimiko Glenn) is diagnosed with advanced cancer, and she enters the hospital for treatment by Dr. Petersen (Tom Hewitt) and his team. Yoshimi is supported by her boyfriend Booker (Nik Walker), a trader who works behind an elaborate computer console, and her parents (Pearl Sun and John Haggerty). Outside and wanting to get back in is former boyfriend Ben (Paul Nolan). A computer graphics designer, Ben creates a virtual world where Yoshimi can do battle with the cancer cells (as represented by pink robots) that are trying to take over her body. The tale goes back and forth between the stressful medical treatments and Ben's fantasy world, where Yoshimi can achieve positive outcomes and then spend time painting a big yellow sun on a stark white canvas.

Despite the vivid colors, Mr. McAnuff's staging matches the coolness of the music and sometimes strays into cold and detached, especially when the technology dominates. Thrilling though they may be visually, the robot sequences make one long for human expression of emotions.

At the center of those human emotions is Ben (Mr. Nolan, one of several Stratford and Jesus Christ Superstar performers Mr. McAnuff has cast in this production). Ben's vocals have to carry the show, and Mr. Nolan's high tenor and elegant phrasing is more than up to the task. It is interesting that Ben burns perhaps too hot for Yoshimi: she doesn't want to see him, but she'll respond to texts from him. Ben's virtual world is designed to win over Yoshimi, but it seems to be Booker's increasing inability to deal with Yoshimi's battle that turns the tide in Ben's favor.

Booker doesn't have nearly as much stage time or music as Ben and Yoshimi, but Mr. Walker makes his presence felt with a purity of voice that Mr. Nolan doesn't exhibit. Perhaps Mr. Walker's self-proclaimed status as a Flaming Lips fan, or perhaps his experience performing in a production of The Who's Tommy while a student at New York University helps him to stand out, stylistically.

That leaves the base of the triangle, Yoshimi. Ms. Glenn dances and sings well enough, but her performance seems to me to be where the emotional hole is located.

It goes without saying, though, that the creative elements primarily drive the show's effectiveness. Robert Brill's scenic design, aided in particular by Michael Walton's lighting and Sean Nieuwenhuis' video and projection design, realizes the goals that Mr. Brill and Mr. McAnuff having been trying to reach across several collaborations (and thank goodness Mr. McAnuff didn't insist on including his trademark industrial scaffolding in this design). Paul Tazewell's costumes not only respond to the color palette in interesting ways, but they create human versions of the robots that nevertheless are able to execute Bradley Rapier's energetic choreography in ways that serve to create thrilling stage pictures. Mr. Twist's puppets are marvels, both visually and operationally.

La Jolla Playhouse has notched another hit into its belt. But, barring an extension, you haven't got much time to see it. Have your personal robot call for tickets right away. Don't have a personal robot yet? Never fear, you will—and maybe you'll even get one in sunshine yellow.

Performs through December 16, 2012, on Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sun at 7:00 pm, and with matinees on Sat/Sun at 2:00 pm, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037. Phone (858) 550-1010 or visit for tickets.

La Jolla Playhouse presents Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Story by Wayne Coyne and Des McAnuff, Music & Lyrics by The Flaming Lips. Directed by Des McAnuff with Ron Melrose, Musical Supervisor, Bradley Rapier, Choreographer, Jasper Grant, Conductor, Bill Brendle, Orchestrator, Robert Brill, Scenic Designer, Paul Tazewell, Costume Designer, Michael Walton, Lighting Designer, Steve Canyon Kennedy, Sound Designer, Sean Nieuwenhuis, Projection Designer, Basil Twist, Puppet Designer, Steve Rankin, Fight Director, Gabriel Greene, Dramaturg, and Frank Hartenstein, Production Stage Manager.

The cast includes Kimiko Glenn as Yoshimi, John Haggerty as Mr. Yasukawa, Tom Hewitt as Dr. Petersen, Paul Nolan as Ben, Pearl Sun as Mrs. Yasukawa, and Nik Walker as Booker. The ensemble includes Mary Antonini, Michael Balderrama, Emmanuel Brown, Richard Bulda, LaMae Caparas, Albert Guerzon, Katie McGehee, Jack Mikesell, Vasthy Mompoint, Laurin Padolina, Ian Paget, Catherine Ricafort, Jaz Sealy, Jason Sermonia, Julius Sermonia, Vaden Thurgood, Jonny Wexler, Jesse Wildman, and James Cortez, Chelsea Diggs-Smith, and Karen Li serve as swings.

Photo: Kevin Berne

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie