Turning sound recordings into stage shows has become a cottage industry for Tony-winning director Des McAnuff. He directed the theatrical debut of The Who’s Tommy and the 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which began life as concept albums, as well as the docu-jukebox mega-hit Jersey Boys, built around the songs of the Four Seasons. Now, he’s helming another long-awaited disc-to-stage adaptation: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, based on the critically acclaimed 2002 album by space-rock icons the Flaming Lips.
Yoshimi runs through Dec. 16 at La Jolla Playhouse, where McAnuff, who headed the company for many years, also midwifed Tommy and the Superstar revival. Artistic director Christopher Ashley was attracted to the chemistry between McAnuff and the stagecraft-loving band: “Anyone who’s ever seen a Flaming Lips concert has experienced their sheer, unbridled theatricality. Des McAnuff’s productions share that blazing collision of theatre artistry and event.” McAnuff returns the affection for La Jolla: “I think there are very few places that could actually do this show,” he says. “This theatre has not only the play-development skills and dramaturgical skills, but also the technical know-how to mount a piece like this.”
A piece like what? McAnuff is reluctant to over-describe it, but he says the stage Yoshimi is almost entirely sung-through, and includes all the songs on the album as well as a few other thematically related Lips tracks, like “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” from 2006’s At War with the Mystics. However, he notes, “There is a lot of visual storytelling that really adds layers to the kind of science fiction/anime story that Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips frontman, implied on the album.”
The titular pink robots have kept their featured role, and are being fashioned by Basil Twist, creator of such otherworldly spectacles as the underwater puppet show Symphonie Fantastique. “As soon as you get into the idea of pink robots, Basil Twist immediately comes to mind,” says McAnuff. The alpha bots are 14 feet tall, encasing a wire-suspended actor wearing a massive headpiece and arm extensions that turn his wrists into elbows. That actor’s feet rest at the robot’s waistline, so two other puppeteers have to manipulate the robot’s legs, while two more carefully steer its movements along guide wires.
Despite the mesmerizing visuals, McAnuff is confident that the Lips’s songs, like the poignant “Do You Realize?”, will lift the show well beyond gee-whiz stagecraft. “I think, as with Wayne’s other work, the piece has heart,” McAnuff says. “And I hope that the audience will go on a meaningful emotional journey.”