“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” is helmer Des McAnuff’s elaborate attempt to extract a coherent stage tuner out of a concept album plus additional songs by Oklahoma-born indie band the Flaming Lips. To no surprise to McAnuff watchers, there’s electronic wizardry out the wazoo, but it’s surrounded by a thin, uninvolving storyline literalizing a lymphoma patient’s treatment into bouts of kung fu fighting. Glum, overengineered “Yoshimi” is a concept in search of a demographic, much effort expended to remarkably little effect.
Many tuners have book problems; this one’s problem is there’s no book. Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and McAnuff share a story credit whose particulars seem like they could’ve been dreamt up over a weekend, instead of reported years of development.
Yoshimi (Kimiko Glenn) is a lovely Japanese-American painter of no distinguishable personality, whose geeky boyfriend Ben (Paul Nolan) – geekiness established by porkpie hat – is evidently too clingy. He’s immediately booted for studly broker Booker (Nik Walker), though Ben will weasel back into favor when Booker can’t cope with the grim diagnosis.
That’s it for narrative, the rest devoted to shoehorning preexisting Flaming Lips numbers into Yoshimi’s treatment. For the first character song, Booker cradles his fainting g.f. to sing “I’m wishing I was the one that wasn’t gonna be here anymore.” But since she’s only fainted and no one yet knows of her disease, his thoughts just don’t apply to what’s going on.
Throughout the show, lyrics either clash with the given situation or illustrate it blandly. (Sometimes they do both, as when Yoshimi’s parents take shirts off a clothes line while singing “Putting all the clothes you’ve washed away,” then wad the garments carelessly for “And as you’re folding up the shirts you hesitate.”) Meanwhile, though the Lips’ sound appealingly blends rock and electronic dance music with a C&W twang, it seems somehow small and constricted in this context. Ron Melrose has probably orchestrated it as fully as possible, but the repertoire of a band famous for excitingly theatrical shows never soars on La Jolla’s stage.
There’s magic to do. White corpuscle cells, robotted “Star Wars” storm troopers in “Tron” helmets, turn pink when cancerous according to unctuous Dr. Petersen (Tom Hewitt in a role unworthy of his talents). Yoshimi’s gown becomes karate gear and wham! Bam! Zowie!, she’s pummeling them into submission against a black background. Cool enough, except we’ve all seen similar movie fights at double and triple speed while these are necessarily carefully slowed down. The intended lift is simply absent.
Scooter rides against rear projection are reminiscent of “Speed Racer” but unconnected to the story; sensory overload doesn’t score in theater quite the way it does in cinema. Then there’s Yoshimi’s cancer-fighting imaginary BFF, 14-feet-tall Unit 3001-21. Echoing “The Iron Giant” (beloved animated pic which McAnuff co-produced), Joey in “War Horse” he ain’t: Even with loyal Ben climbing inside the skeleton torso, there’s just not enough there to inspire affection.
Nolan, so brilliant as McAnuff’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” a year ago, does the musical heavy lifting, wailing and screeching pretentious sentiments to elevate the emotional stakes, while Hewitt saunters around mouthing toads like “You know, there’s evidence that love actually has the ability to heal.” (You really mourn a librettist’s absence when an oncologist announces, “It’s quite literally a matter of life and death.”) Glenn and Walker remain totally attractive and forgettable in a show too dour for kids and too simplistic for grownups.
Basil Twist is credited with the puppetry, but in a way everyone here is dangling from strings. All the movement is deliberate, thesps gingerly edging their way into place for F/X or light cues as if the show were being done under water. You leave the playhouse not conscious of a single memorable moment of spontaneity or high spirits, which could be the biggest adversary “Yoshimi” has to battle.