Based on music and lyrics by alternative-punk-psychedelic-pop-rock band The Flaming Lips, McAnuff tells a technology-charged tale about life and how sometimes one friend believing in another makes all the difference in someone’s life, no matter how impossible the odds may seem.
“This show unfolds as if you were watching an artist do a painting,” said Linda Cooper, production manager for the LJP. “It really is an emotional journey that you go on through the music, lyrics and visuals.”
McAnuff, director emeritus at the LJP, has created a dramatic piece that simultaneously takes place in the modern world and on a science fiction landscape. His one-of-a-kind spectacle features singing, dancing, computerized projections, illuminated robot costumes, automated set changes, martial arts, puppets, actors flying across the stage and a 14-foot robot named 3000-21.
Actress Kimiko Glenn plays Yoshimi Yasukawa, a young visual artist diagnosed with lymphoma, who finds herself entangled in a love triangle between her eccentric ex, Ben Nickel (played by Paul Nolan) and Booker, her hedge-fund manager boyfriend (named after Flaming Lips’ manager Scott Booker and played by Nik Walker).
Ben wins Yoshimi back, and in the course of doing so, steps into an alternative reality where pink robots serve as an allegory for Yoshimi’s cancer. It is his belief in her ability to battle the pink robots that Yoshimi draws the strength to combat her illness. The answer to how the story ends can be found in the Flaming Lips lyrics to the song for which the production is entitled.
“It’s unusual when you think about it in the context of musical theater, where songs so often have to move the plot forward,” said Tom Hewitt, who described his character, Dr. Peterson, as the medical reality in the middle of a robot fantasy. “I think the director and the writers have been very clever in crafting the story around the Lips’ lyrics, which have a sort of universal theme.”
Formed in 1983, the Oklahoma City-based Flaming Lips are known for their art-rock experiments and theatrical concerts (they once staged a concert in a parking lot using the tape decks of cars and boom boxes as instruments). In 1997, they released “Zaireeka,” a four-part album intended to be played on four CD players simultaneously. A recently released song, which was created for iPhone-type devices, allows the audience to become the orchestra, with 12 distinct tracks that can be played simultaneously on multiple devices.
Hewitt called it a “brave move” on the part of McAnuff, who he said loves the technical aspect of the theater and has become famous for it. McAnuff has directed musicals such as “Big River,” “The Who’s Tommy,” “Jersey Boys” and the new revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“This is the most technically challenging production that’s ever been staged at the La Jolla Playhouse in the eight years I’ve been here,” said Cooper, who added that the challenge for McAnuff was in finding a balance between doing what needed to be done technically, while not allowing the technology to overwhelm the actual story. “Des was guiding that ship and I think we did it.”
Cooper said that there is so much wireless activity going on during the performance, audience members are asked to turn off their cell phones to avoid the chance of any interference with the signals and technology on stage.
“Des has done a wonderful job of creating a production that serves this music so well and makes it accessible to more people who maybe wouldn’t listen to the Lips,” Cooper said. “It’s music that’s relatable and it’s a story that you can really hang on to.”
Tickets to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are available online at www.LaJollaPlayhouse.org or by calling The Playhouse Box Office at (858) 550-1010.