Friday, November 9, 2012
A new musical at the La Jolla Playhouse was inspired by the music of alternative rock band The Flaming Lips. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone says" Jersey Boys" director Des McAnuff worked with the band to translate "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" to the stage.
Since its release in 2002, fans and critics have tried to figure out if there’s a story to The Flaming Lips album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." There seems to be a main character - a Japanese girl named Yoshimi who's at war with an army of robots.
Director Des McAnuff ("The Who's Tommy," "Jersey Boys") started looking for a story in Yoshimi in 2005, one that he could tell on the stage. McAnuff is the former artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse.
McAnuff said he found the seed for that story in the album's opening song. "It starts out with a song called 'Fight Test' which gave me the ability to create a central relationship, a love triangle."
But McAnuff knew a stage adaptation of "Yoshimi" would need more than a love triangle. It had to encompass more profound themes, especially since such themes are what Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne likes to write about. "He has the courage as a poetic lyricist to take on serious subjects: loss, betrayal, all the challenges we face as mortals," explained McAnuff.
McAnuff and Coyne came up with the story for the musical together. "It’s really about a young woman heroically battling her own body and yet part of it takes place on a martian landscape," McAnuff said.
Actress Kimiko Glenn, who had a memorable turn this summer in the Playhouse production of "The Nightingale", plays the character of Yoshimi. "She actually finds out that she has cancer," Glenn explained. "Throughout the play, we see her battling the cancer...or the pink robots, if you will." The pink robots represent the cells attacking Yoshimi's body.
The musical is almost entirely sung through, with very little dialogue. McAnuff said he’s been almost religiously faithful to the Yoshimi album. He even included a robot named unit 3000-21, also featured on the album.
Christopher Ashley is the current artistic director at the Playhouse. He’s been helping produce Yoshimi. "It’s technically the most ambitious show that we’ve done since I’ve been here," Ashley noted. "It’s got extraordinary robotics and puppetry, motorized scenery and lights and sound and LED screens."
That kind of stagecraft should be familiar to Flaming Lips fans. The Oklahoma band is known for their theatrical concerts. They often have people in mascot costumes dancing on stage with them. They float giant weather balloons above their audiences while confetti streams down.
But McAnuff says he won’t weigh the stage musical down with technical wizardry. "If I were 22 and straight out of drama school, I might make that mistake," McAnuff said. "I’m not going to make it on this. I know what’s important and what’s important is the humanity."
The Playhouse production is "Yoshimi’s" world premiere. It will include all the music from "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" as well as other Flaming Lips albums. McAnuff says the musical should appeal to more than Lips fans. "If you happen to love the bands associated with the British invasion, then you’ll love the Lips because they were so heavily influenced by those bands along with the post-punk and New Wave bands. This one could have the common touch."
That common touch is something McAnuff has been trying to bring to theater for years, first with his musical "The Who’s Tommy" and later "Jersey Boys," based on the music and life of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Both musicals were wildly successful on Broadway and won multiple Tony Awards.
"I’ve spent some of my career demystifying the theater for people who I think should be playing in our sandbox," McAnuff said.
Flaming Lips fans are generally a younger demographic then the average theater-goer. With "Yoshimi," they’ll get a chance to see if that theatrical sandbox is for them.
"Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" is currently on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse and runs through December 16th.