“Her name is Yoshimi – she’s got a black belt in karate,” commences the title track in The Flaming Lip’s concept album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The musical, bearing the same mame, ultimately stays true to the album, as Director Des McAnuff has had past Tony success with electric musicals. Showing at the La Jolla Playhouse, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is every bit emotional as it is aesthetically pleasing – a visceral exhibition of responding to one’s own mortality.
Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has remained outspoken in his political and social beliefs, which permeate his creation, but in teaming up with McAnuff, who was a huge Lips fan, they managed to recreate the strangely enlightening truths evident in Yoshimi. The musical, which began showing November 6, fills the stage with teams of robots adorned in LED light suits, a fourteen foot human-operated LED robot puppet, as well as several satirical takes on modernization through the “digital” lives most lead.
McAnuff says he was approached by Coyne and the band through his agent, asking hether he would be interested directing a musical adaptation of Yoshimi. After having success directing electric musicals in the past, such as The Who’s Tommy and Chess, McAnuff brings the experience and capability of translating a piece of music into a theatrical production. One benefit of The Flaming Lips album, that is a facet of their live shows, is that it is highly theatrical at the core.
“A Flaming Lips concert is like going to a great party,” says McAnuff. “There’s also a kind of ecstasy when you go to a Lip’s concert. It’s almost like a children’s party for adults: there are balloons and people dressed as animals, and Wayne drifting around the top of the crows in a huge transparent ball. There’s a great since of fun and celebration, and that gives him a license to address serious issues. If you can make people laugh, that’s a formidable weapon.”
For such a seemingly fun and uplifting album, of which Coyne explains that the Lips were “listening to a lot of underground Japanese pop at the time,” a serious underlying theme drives the plot. Yoshimi, played by Kimiko Glenn (The Nightingale), contracts a rare form of lymphoma at the musical’s beginning. In order for her to continue on this earth, her white blood cells must fight a fierce battle against the viral pink cells (pink robots) infecting her body. All the while in a constant struggle between her two boyfriends, Booker and Ben (played by Nik Walter and Paul Nolan, respectively), Yoshimi becomes ever the constant warrior in this the most serious of battles. Booker is the over egotistical day trader, and Ben is a clumsy romantic who enters Yoshimi’s war torn world, sabotaging the robots to “win” her back.
The set design utilizes a brilliant synergy of 3-D shell modeling, wireless LED light packs, strobe lights, and graphically modern projections. The research and development process was very intense for set and costume designers, as well as technicians, as they had to create a futuristic world of functional robot suits, manage real time projecting, and design the massive robot. Flying puppet robots and external sound effects were also huge facets of the musical, even a floor-cleaning bot was used as a color character.
Not only are Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots classics such as: “Fight Song,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Pt. I and II),” and “It’s Summertime,” performed to perfection, but also Lips favorites “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” and “Waitin’ for a Superman.” The live band tapped to perform the wide range of emotion and blend of acoustic and electronic music executes songs much like The Flaming Lips do. They have the ability to transfer effortlessly from more intense, flashing distorted bass grooves, to sweeter acoustic melodies signature to The Lips.
“It’s all our music and he [McAnuff] wouldn’t do something that we didn’t agree with,” said Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. “Des would say little things and I would say, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ or ‘Oh I don’t care, do what you want,’ and that’s been the extent of it mostly. If it ends up being mildly successful, I will of course say it’s my idea. [Laughs]. But we all know Des is the one.”