LA JOLLA — Futuristic theatrical effects are deployed like a hypnotist’s pocket watch in “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” But the real mesmerizing aspect of this new musical at La Jolla Playhouse, inspired by the music of the psychedelic rock band the Flaming Lips, is the way it sounds.
Our ears are delighted at a higher level than our eyes — or our minds, for that matter. The show’s sophistication lies in the floating lyricism of its score, which can be categorized in that Tower Records-era indie catch-all known as “alternative rock.” The visual imagination is seductive, but in a manner that can seem shallow for a work chronicling in surreal fashion a young woman’s desperate fight against cancer.
You either go along with the premise — a Japanese American artist’s battle with lymphoma is transformed into a war against flying robots — or you balk at its New Age underpinnings. Count me in the second category, though the ride through a night sky swarming with alien creatures is often exhilarating.
Inspired by the music of the Flaming Lips, the show incorporates songs from several albums, including of course the critically acclaimed “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” The sublime orchestrations are by music director Ron Melrose, who frequently collaborates with Des McAnuff, the show’s director and probably the most knowledgeable theater artist on the planet when it comes to bringing concept albums to the stage.
McAnuff, who shaped the story with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, seems to enjoy the freedom of working in that space between music video and book musical. The electric fluidity that he brought to his recent revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and his landmark production of “The Who’s Tommy” is certainly on full multimedia display here. And back at his old haunt, where he’s director emeritus (his unstoppable production of “Jersey Boys” surely sealed his Playhouse legacy), McAnuff seems intent on dazzling us with glitzy galactic spectacle.
The scenic imagery, a combination of Japanese anime and a loopier version of “Star Wars,” is relentless. The design team — which includes Robert Brill (scenic design), Basil Twist (puppetry), Sean Nieuwenhuis (video and projections), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Michael Walton ( lighting) and Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound) — has fashioned an extraordinary kaleidoscope, dominated by a cast of actor-controlled robots, including one 14-foot baby that looms over the action like a giant killer. And a group of ace musicians, conducted by Jasper Grant, one of the keyboardists, sets it all in motion to a lush, full sound.
But the awkward narrative tension between the seriousness of the subject matter and the fanciful way the allegory is realized never goes away.
A hipster painter with a penchant for white canvases featuring a blob of yellow, Yoshimi (Kimiko Glenn) is healthy when we first meet her. She’s in a relationship with Booker (Nik Walker), an investment broker, and trying her best to keep her computer graphics designer ex-boyfriend, the romantically dogged Ben (Paul Nolan), at bay.
Then, out of nowhere, Yoshimi collapses. Booker launches into “Mr. Ambulance Driver” from the Flaming Lips’ album “At War With the Mystics.” And her hospital nightmare, which gets visually transmogrified into a three-dimensional video game (complete with Bradley Rapier’s hallucinatory choreography) begins.
Doctor Petersen (the capable Tom Hewitt in a thankless role) informs her that her body is attacking itself with mutant lymphocytes: “These pink cells are the enemy. They must be defeated.”
What results can be described as a chemotherapy fantasia. Ben sums it up for us in “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part I": “Those evil-natured robots/They’re programmed to destroy us/She’s gotta be strong to fight them/So she’s taking lots of vitamins.”
The spoken vocabulary isn’t always this basic. There are words in “Pink Robots” you wouldn’t normally expect to hear in a musical — words that would stop even Stephen Sondheim dead in his tracks. “Immunotherapy,” “synthetic antibodies” and the names of medical procedures I’m too much of a hypochondriac to repeat contribute to the show’s odd blend of space-age fantasy and clinical realism.
La Jolla Playhouse is getting a reputation for developing musicals that don’t act like musicals. Earlier this year “Hands on a Hardbody,” a show about a contest for a pickup truck at a Texas auto dealership, had its premiere here and is now headed to Broadway despite the choreographically challenging fact that the characters must maintain one hand on the vehicle to win it.
Thinking in an untraditional way is precisely what’s needed at a time when the American musical has reverted to cheesy movie adaptations and jejune jukebox contraptions. But the literary sensibility behind “Pink Robots” is markedly inferior to its visual imagination. This show needs a book writer, STAT.
The basic outline of the story is clear enough, but the details can be fuzzy or cramped or, in the case of Yoshimi’s parents (played by John Haggerty and Pearl Sun), stereotypical. The romantic turmoil is treated in the imagistic shorthand of a Madonna video. And then there are lines (“You know, there is evidence that love actually has the ability to heal”) that had me flipping through the program to see if inspirational author Louise L. Hay had a hand in the work’s creation. (It’s not the sentiment so much as the banality of expression.)
Nolan, who was Jesus in McAnuff’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” anchors the show with a bohemian clownishness that contains a searching lyricism. Glenn is exquisite to look at and listen to, though Yoshimi is treated too picturesquely, like a suffering doll. Walker brings sympathy to a character who can’t bear to witness what he’s helpless to change.
It’s the singing of these performers, rather than their acting, that stirs up the emotions — just as it’s the haunting sound of the show, rather than its dazzling sights, that has stayed with me. If you want to go to a deeper place with “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” you’ll have to close your eyes and travel there via your own imagination.
‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 16.
Contact: (858) 550-1010
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes