Monday, November 26, 2012

REVIEWED: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Before leaving La Jolla Playhouse, I got to see one final show for free: the epic jukebox musical Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, based on The Flaming Lips album of the same name.

Funny thing about dates, I never remember when exactly, but once someone tells me when something happened, I can recall quite a bit about that time.
The album came out in 2002. I didn't remember that, but it was released that summer, which was headed into my sophomore year of high school, something I do remember.
Some psychological research seems to suggest that 14/15, around that time, is a crucial time in forming our identities, particularly when it comes to our tastes in popular culture. Music specifically, we begin to move away from the music our parents exposed us to, and take in more of what our friends listen to, and begin to form our own loves and hates.
That being said, Yoshimi came at an ideal time in my life. I'd not heard Flaming Lips previously, and this was my introduction to them. The electronica, the slightly more psychedelic nature of their rock sound, it was like the studio-locked, experimental Beatles truly crossing with something like Modest Mouse or The White Stripes.
I wasn't such a fan of stuff from my friends' realms, and the Lips actually provided an easier transition for me from stuff like the Beatles or Dylan.

That said, Yoshimi is honestly the only album I still listen to of theirs. Despite my love for the album itself, I never truly got behind the band.
The lyrical content of the album is what I'd call musing, the melodies are meandering. It's complex, conceptual, and ambiguous. With my predisposition to open-endedness and curiosity, I hooked into the album's questions and possible answers quickly.

Do You Realize? was the album's single, and it's been overused to death since (it used to be on the GAP playlist when I worked there in high school) but that doesn't reduce its impact and musicality. The song is beautiful, and simple.
A quirky, rather upbeat, accompaniment plays proudly behind hauntingly unnerving lyrics:

Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?
Do you realize we're floating in space?
Do you realize that happiness makes you cry?
Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?

And instead of saying all your goodbyes 
Let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

Flash forward to 2012. I'm working at the Playhouse, and they announce that a musical is being discussed to premiere in San Diego, involving the Flaming Lips and Des McAnuff, formerly LJP's artistic director responsible for pretty much everything good that came out of that theater for the past two or three decades or so.

McAnuff only recently vacated his position, choosing to head the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He returned briefly last year in triumph to import his Canadian revival of Jesus Christ Superstar before its Broadway run. Needless to say, the show, I believe much more because it was McAnuff than because it was Superstar, sold like crazy, was extended, and even managed to sell out Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, when the run concluded. (I know, because I had to say, "I'm sorry, we're sold out," A LOT).

Despite its pretty brief run on Broadway, McAnuff was in a prime spot to return to San Diego again, and when we heard it was for the Flaming Lips musical, it caused a whole new buzz.
Flaming Lips is an entirely new demographic and it brought a new audience to the theater to see it.

Yoshimi was, first and foremost, a visual spectacle and a technological achievement.
It was a musical second.

The plot concerns the title character, a young Japanese girl who is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, battling for her life while her successful boyfriend and head-in-the-clouds ex-boyfriend battle for her love.

Much of the hype surrounded the second-billed title characters, but the true stars of the show, the Pink Robots. Representing this dangerous cancer in Yoshimi's body, she suits up to fight back.
Actors dressed in fiber-optic suits took over the dark stage, illuminated in pink, flashing, strobing, kicking, and flipping in their initial appearance.
Even their second time onstage was pretty breathless, with the robots seemingly teleporting across the stage, besting Yoshimi in combat. A couple even managed to take to the air.
And of course, the big reveal was the "giant" robot, about 15 feet tall, walking across stage, requiring several people to puppeteer.
This, along with several other effects including a floating romantic dinner, a hologram globe, and projections and moving screens put to good use, were the obvious centerpiece of the musical.

Everything else is truly what got second-billing.

Despite the entire musical being sung-through, some of the ambiguous lyricism of the Flaming Lips fails to translate on to the stage, where we expect characters who aren't flat, but they are a little more one-track minded. Adding a plot and characters we are meant to care about clouds this, and highlights the lyrics' neutrality.

Also, with everything being sung-through, there isn't much room for character development. A musical can always benefit from strongly written dialogue and scenes (though they more often suffer, to be sure), but the narration from Chicago, or the charm and wit of a script like Wicked, lends to the idea that a musical needs a book.
The prospect that Aaron Sorkin was once attached to write a script for the project is extremely promising, and the decision is extremely disappointing that they moved to have it sung-through.
Several scenes fail to convey any sort of meaning without more explicit dialogue.
In particular:
An interlude song by the parents of Yoshimi as they attempt to continue their daily lives accomplishes nothing, as we have made no connection to the parents thus far before the song comes in.
The second act opener is probably the most exciting song of the show, but never connects to anything else.
And a scene where Yoshimi's successful boyfriend (who leaves her during the course of the show) returns and visits her and the ex- (now her current boyfriend, again...) in their new apartment seems forced and unnecessary. It also reduces the impact of the two men appearing together at the end of the show after  
Yoshimi dies.

 A lot of this, plus most of the show, could have benefited from some strong dialogue. Sorkin especially is masterful at fitting in character development while moving a story forward. His scenes could have been kept brief, if they wanted to emphasize the music. But speaking of the music...
After seeing Cirque du Soleil's Love, an amazing tribute to The Beatles, I'm uncannily obsessed and righteously indignant with the idea that if we are to have jukebox musicals, something more innovative should be done with the music.
The official tracks in Love numbers maybe around 16, but you will hear upwards of maybe 50 or 60 distinct Beatles melodies if you are listening closely. That's because within each of the numbered tracks is wrapped up maybe 5 or 6 different elements from distinct songs: a guitar riff from this one, the original backing track from this one, plus a hook from this song, and another hook from this song, played backward.
Basically, a lot of time and thought went into that. A lot of time and thought goes into writing songs for a musical.
No time and thought is spent taking preexisting numbers from an existing artist and placing them in a show. And I'm sick of it.
Oh, but David, you say. Surely, time and thought is put into their order, their inclusion and exclusion.
Well, I'd say in return, shut up.
I contend that it's not the same effort. There is slightly more in a jukebox musical that includes an artists' catalog, rather than a single album. But once you have the plot, it's a matter of sticking the songs in where they'll be good.
In an Elton John musical, if you have a guy falling in love with a young girl who dances at a club, you would use "Tiny Dancer"; why on earth would you use "Elderberry Wine"?

For the Flaming Lips musical, the song list added a few numbers, and no cuts as far as I could tell. A slight re-ordering of the songs was done, but for the most part, the musical is extremely reverent to the source material, which I find pointless.
I can just listen to the album if I want to hear the songs sung in the same way in the same order as they are on the CD.
With a musical, with storytelling in mind, with drama as the foundation, with innovation and spectacle as your centerpiece, why not strive for something more in the music? It is a musical, after all.

In particular, the successful boyfriend, in the song that leads up to him leaving Yoshimi for good, "Waiting for a Superman" is probably the most intriguing and toughest moment in the show.
The scene I mentioned earlier, featuring the parents, "Suddenly Everything Has Changed", I think would have benefited from combining these two numbers.
In counterpoint, we see the parents bewildered but unselfishly attempting to regain their lives, while this boyfriend of Yoshimi's decides to do the same, albeit perhaps more selfishly. The contrast of the viewpoints would have enhanced both numbers, cut some time from the show, and made for some a refreshing musical number, rather than a straightforward song performance.
Several times through the show, a song here or there could have been overlaid with a song elsewhere, as they were accomplishing the same goal without adding anything new the second time through.

That leads to a bigger problem, with the musical running about 2 hours, with an intermission. I personally found it too long. There wasn't enough drama to sustain a second act. She gets sick, she gets better, intermission, she's fine, she's not, she's worse, she's dead, the end.
All of that could have been accomplished without an intermission. The arcs were all completed by the end of the first act, making me wonder what they were going to explore in the second act. It turned out that it was nothing new, that it was essentially a reprisal of the first act, with even less.
The reformation of Yoshimi with her ex- could have been handled entirely within the hospital, and perhaps within her first week of leaving it is when she unexpectedly has a relapse. It brings us closer to the ex- character, because he never truly gets what he wants, losing the girl he loves, and brings the return of the other guy much more sympathetic, at least in my mind. The fact that he comes back to visit when she's seemingly healthy screams, "I fucked up, I thought you were gonna die, can we get back together now?" to me.

And with the overly long proceedings, it leads to yet another problem. The Robots are over-exposed. They become a fixture throughout most of the second act, returning for almost every scene even when they're not used. The novelty quickly wears off.
Something like that has to deliver every time it appears. My example is the Star Wars prequels. I know, I know...a million voices screamed out at once at their mention and then silence...But let me explain...
The lightsaber battles were given an opportunity to be faster, fresher, and more kinetic than they had been in the original series. These were young Jedi and Sith in their physical prime, battling for the galaxy, not an old man and a cyborg having a pissing contest for the well-being of a whiny farmboy.
Phantom Menace inadvertently set a rather high bar: two athletic Jedi (Obi-Wan Kenobi earned a reputation for one of the fastest lightsaber duelists in the galaxy) facing off against a frightening, intimidating Sith Lord, who possessed a previously-unseen weapon that proved lethal. The fight was fast-paced and unexpected, unlike what we had seen from the original Trilogy, where a lightsaber was used to deflect blast bolts, cut open a Tauntaun, and redecorate furniture.
For Episode 2, we were excited to see something even better, and despite skepticism, we got it. Attack of the Clones featured a brief exchange between Dooku and the greatest Jedi of all time, Master Yoda, in his first ever lightsaber battle in the series. Yoda flipped, spun, and grunted into our hearts, and we were left wanting more as the exchange lasted all of thirty seconds. Perhaps Dooku versus Obi-Wan and Anakin, with Anakin using a lightsaber in each hand (sadly for an even shorter amount of time than the Yoda/Dooku exchange) was more disappointing than building, but the Yoda prospect exceeded that.
One problem.
There was one last Episode. And it had big shoes to fill. Yoda would surely have to fight again, how would that be even better than the first exchange we saw? Had Lucas released that sure-fire hit too soon? What more could be added to a now-classic lightsaber duel?
Drama, that's what.
The Dooku/Anakin exchange at the outset is at least a build in momentum and storytelling for Anakin. The first Palpatine fight, culminating in the duel with Samuel L. Mace Windu Jackson is shocking, at least for the Jedi.
The intercut Palpatine fight with Yoda is at least scenic, and somewhat symbolic, with them fighting through the Galactic Senate chambers, seeing both the demise of the Jedi as well as benevolent political order in the galaxy.
But it is the main Obi-Wan/Anakin exchange that that fight shares screentime with that we have been leading up to all along. This is the true master meets student. This is good-hearted Light side meeting well-intentioned, misguided Dark side. Obi-Wan, ever the peacemaker, ever the diplomat, ever the "there are alternatives to fighting", has exhausted every alternative. He is going to stand his ground against a much faster, more driven, more rage-filled Anakin. The storytelling is amazing, besides the sword-work being the best of the series.

ANYWAY, all this to say... There needed to be something that the Robots were building towards. What was the point of the momentum? The first scene showed the features of the suits, what they were capable of, their potential. They were posing for spectacle. Their second scene was their full realization, I was awestruck, people were audibly gasping in the audience. Third scene...okay, well, two flew around, but they were obviously on sticks, it wasn't wire work or anything too advanced...
Fourth scene, giant robot! Great build. But then all of them, including the giant robot, made at least three more appearances. And then quite a few more throughout the second act.
Instead, what we got was overexposure to a really cool idea that ultimately lead nowhere.

It's easy for me to be critical. It's so much more fun being negative than positive. But ultimately, Yoshimi was not a trainwreck, by any means. I really loved my viewing experience of it. As I watched, I was really taken in by the spectacle. Like I said, the projection and moving set pieces were all put to amazingly good use.

I LOVE the music and despite the lack of innovation, it was very cool getting to hear the music in a new context.

The actors were extremely talents. Nik Walker made that "Waiting for a Superman" song both poignant and heartbreaking, I saw his character as a jerk and a coward, but at the same time a more complicated, frightened soul, unable to cope.
Paul Nolan, who thrilled me last year as Jesus for the Jesus Christ Superstar revival at the Playhouse, I think was even more impressive here. He seemed to embody this character more (perhaps, too challenging in general is the role of the Son of God?) and have more fun with it. His voice was also much more fitting for this music and he brought a lot of weight and meat to the overused role of optimistic, romantic dreamer loser.
I had a small crush* on Kimiko Glenn who played the title character, especially after hearing her sing "Goin' On." She was sweet, and spirited. I think most of the role is letting things happen around her, which I think made the fight sequences with the Robots much more important, because they gave Yoshimi something to do.

* Having a crush on an Asian girl, kind of a big deal for me...
The parents too, as well as the two doctors, rounded out the cast really well.

And I still can't say enough about the set. Some of the pieces were just amazing.
And again, that second act opener, it was exciting and different, and was the only non-Robot dance number of the show, and it was awesome to see some great choreography. 

So, all-in-all, it's far from perfect, but it's well-worth seeing live, especially as a practical effects fan, a Flaming Lips fan, or a fan of quirky robots.
I think it's a cool indicator of where musical theater COULD head, if jukebox musicals continue to be a trend, if they are handled correctly. There's a lot of potential here, and I just hope creators of these shows see that potential, and continue to grow and innovate in all aspects of a theatrical production.

I leave you with the lyrics to my favorite non-Yoshimi Flaming Lips song:

Love in our life is just too valuable
Oh, to feel for even a second without it
But life without death is just impossible
Oh, to realize something is ending within us

- "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate", The Soft Bulletin