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This past week I had the great pleasure of seeing Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots — a musical version of the concept album from The Flaming Lips — now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse. Rumors of a musical had circulated for years, so I was pretty excited when the announcement for the show came sometime last year; more so when I discovered it would be playing in my own backyard, and would be directed by Des McAnuff who has put on an impressive list of on-to-Broadway shows that originated at the Playhouse (where there’s not a bad seat in the building).

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Being a fan of the Flaming Lips and the original 2002 album I was expecting an audio and visual treat, and I was definitely not disappointed! Even before the show began, as the near capacity crowd began filling the seats, you sensed that this performances was going to be a bit different than most. Maybe not dancing-animals and Wayne-in-a-space-bubble different, but surely a step up from a straightforward telling of, say, West Side Story. For starters, the entire stage was bordered by a wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling “portal”, as if the audience was inside a spaceship watching the story unfold somewhere out in the cosmos. As the audience slowly made their way to their seats the portal was black, dotted by twinkling stars, and a three dimensional globe of the Earth slowly spinning in space — part of the well-synchronized visual effects that drive much of the performance.

Once the globe floated away and the performance began… yes! It was the music of the Flaming Lips in all its weird, spellbinding grandeur, mixing songs from Yoshimi as well as tracks from 2006’s At War With The Mystics. The arrangements stayed very true to the originals, and I thought the cast did a great job taking on the lyrics of Lips vocalist of Wayne Coyne. Though, during the intermission I overheard one patron sharing her confused concerns with another person, “Is it me, or is the male lead really messing up his vocals?” She was referring to Paul Nolan, who was intentionally adapting his vocal delivery to better match the way Wayne sings. And Wayne, for all the character and depth he brings to the Flaming Lips songs, is not your typical pitch-perfect, belt-it-out-like-you’re-Liza vocalist. I thought this choice worked very well for the music and story.

And what of that story? Okay, so Yoshimi is caught in a biotech battle of antibodies and lymphoma, with the pink robots being metaphor for her battle with “bad cells.” In parallel there is a bit of a love triangle that too easily resolves itself, and some humor involving Yoshimi’s family. But the story is really tertiary to the music and visuals — which are amazing!!

Pink robots zoom around the stage, Yoshimi (spunkily played by Kimiko Glenn) flips and flies, video flashes, planets float, and music thunderously crashes down upon every scene. So cool! My favorite character was the giant illuminated robot you see to the left, whose movements are precisely animated by several unseen puppeteers wearing black. Considering that the robot doesn’t speak and really doesn’t have a face, the work of the puppeteers and lighting crew to give this behemoth emotional gravitas was truly astonishing.

While I loved the play, so much so that I’d really like to see it again, I have to be honest. If you are looking for the perfect gift to get your grandparents for Christmas (after all, aren’t tickets to a musical usually a pretty safe bet for grannie and gramps?), Yoshimi might just confuse them a little.

Huh? What are all those pink things? Why are words appearing up in the sky when that guy punched his finger into his palm? I don’t get it. Why don’t they play any nice songs like Oklahoma?

However, if your grandparents (or anyone you know) like to be challenged by imaginative music and fantastic visuals… Yoshimi is just the thing!

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots plays through December 16th at the La Jolla Playhouse and is well worth seeing! Catch it now, or wait for it to (hopefully) make its way to Broadway.

Yoshimi — she’s a black belt in karate!

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