MSQ Review: Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots – La Jolla Playhouse

There’s a Flaming Lips musical — and it has flying robots


Story Structure 101: If you want an audience to go on a journey with someone, it helps if we have a reason to root for the character. Unfortunately, Wayne Coyne and Des McAnuff don’t seem to know the basics of story structure.

The musical Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which is having its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, is based on the Flaming Lips album of the same name. The original album runs just under 48 minutes. The musical, with intermission, runs about 2 hours and 15 minutes. It’s big, splashy, and occasionally inventive but completely uninvolving.

Yoshimi (Kimiko Glenn) has recently broken up with Ben (Paul Nolan) and is now dating Booker (Nik Walker). Despite Ben’s persistence, she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Early in the show Yoshimi collapses and is diagnosed with lymphoma. The rest of the show follows her battle against the disease, the “pink robots” of the title representing her damaged red blood cells. The love triangle also plays out during her illness. Will Yoshimi win in her fight? Will she end up with Ben or Booker?

It really is a battle. Dressed in all-white during some extraordinary looking fight scenes, pink robots take to the stage and combat ensues. The most impressive of these moments comes when robots appear and disappear in a flash all over the stage. They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It’s a stunning bit of staging. Some moments, however, feel like Tron meets Starlight Express. (No sound effects can disguise the fact that the flying robots are as lifelike as mannequins.)

The second act begins at a stock exchange. It is here that we find Booker working while Ben provides commentary about the world in which they occupy. I’m baffled at the inclusion of robots here. Perhaps this is a metaphor that cancer is everywhere, but it lessens the impact of Yoshimi’s battle against them, particularly when they become stagehands moving furniture. 

While there is plenty of eye candy, it isn’t enough to compensate for a story that isn’t well developed. Music that makes an interesting 48-minute CD begins to sound the same when expanded to two hours.

The strongest element of Yoshimi is Ms. Glenn. She has a gorgeous voice and a smile that floods the stage with light. Mr. Nolan can be a fine singer, but he sounded oddly like Neil Young in certain moments.

Director McAnuff doesn’t appear to be interested in the human element. This is clearly an expensive show, and it the visuals seem to matter most. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a tale that relies on technology to tell its tale. The result is cold and unemotional when human connection would have accomplished so much more.

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  • Meg

    I disagree that the show lacked story structure of that it lacked a protagonist. As you mention, Kimiko Glenn is wonderful as the title character. We obviously will root for her, but I also feel like Ben, the off beat and almost stalkerish at the beginning of the show is an interesting character who grows on you and stands out most in my memory of the show. I found the show moving and well structured, though I agree that there are a few parts that could use a bit of clarification if the show moves forward from LaJolla. Still, though a traditional musical it is not, I hope that work like this continues to be produced. The author of this article might not have loved the show, but the evening I saw it, even the old ladies in the rather lengthy bathroom line were raving (and it seems rare that old ladies are fans of rock musicals).

    If you think the show revolved around technology to tell its tale, then I would venture to say that you came in with a predisposition to think this. Ben creates the entire world of Yoshimi battling the robots out of love for this girl, so that he can make the situation better for her. Obviously, she is not actually battling robots and obviously, cancer is an issue that almost everyone has some experience with and reaches right to the heart.

    I’m guessing the author has never been to a Flaming Lips concert, but for reference, they are huge affairs, wrought with spectacle and splendor. McAnuff actually really scaled down that experience and zeroed in on the human element.

    I wish I could see it again and hope it has a life beyond the playhouse. And, kudos to Des McAnuff.