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THEATER REVIEW: La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”

When you’ve got a 14-foot robot and nine other, more compact mechanical humanoids to play with, does a show need anything else?

Well, yes, it needs some sort of vestigial plot (check!), some human actors (check!) and – if it’s a musical – some songs (check!).

La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere of “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” based on the album of the same name by the alt-rock band The Flaming Lips. It really should be called a rock opera, since there is very little dialogue.

The Lips’ Wayne Coyne worked with Playhouse artistic director emeritus Des McAnuff on the book and McAnuff directs the tech-heavy show, which plays through Dec. 16 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre.

Here’s the plot: Yoshimi (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese American artist (and black belt in karate), takes on the battle of her life when she’s diagnosed with advanced aggressive lymphoma, a cancer in which mutant white lymphocytes kill off the healthy red cells.

“Your body is at war with itself,” Dr. Peterson (Tom Hewitt) tells her. The mutants are the titular pink robots.

While Dr. Peterson and other medical researchers decide on treatment, Yoshimi has another problem: two suitors vying for her attention. She throws over computer nerd Ben (Paul Nolan) for stockbroker Booker (Nik Walker), which gives rise to several of the ballads in the show.

This is a gee-whiz show with a standard love story at its core. Yoshimi (who played the princess in “The NIghtingale”) is luminous and shows herself pretty adept at karate kicks as well.

Nolan (who last played the title role in McAnuff’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” here) is excellent as the spurned boyfriend who becomes Yoshimi’s emotional anchor. Nik Walker’s Booker is handsome, talented and has the best voice of the bunch, but unfortunately the least to sing.

Hewitt (“Zhivago,” “The Rocky Horror Show”) is fine as Yoshimi’s doctor, and John Haggerty and Pearl Sun (“The Seven”) are convincing as Yoshimi’s parents.

But it’s not the plot you’ll remember; it’s the tech. “Yoshimi” is technically the most advanced show the Playhouse has ever done, offering close to a dozen robots, motorized scenery, LED screens and projections of text messages.

The pièce de résistance is Basil Twist’s 14-foot robot, really a puppet creation in two halves. The waist-up section is operated by one person standing in a sort of bucket. Each leg is operated independently, and a fourth person runs the computer end of the robot.

But all you will see is a giant robot that actually moves. It’s a marvel.

Kudos to the entire tech team, including set designer Robert Brill, costume designer Paul Tazewell, projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis, lighting designer Michael Walton and sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy. Fight director Steve Rankin, musical supervisor and composer of incidental music Ron Melrose and choreographer Bradley Rapier have all done excellent work as well. And let’s hear it for conductor Jasper Grant and his quartet of musicians.

I’ve seen shows that moved me more. I’ve seen shows with more interesting, less repetitive music. But I’ve never seen one with a 14-foot robot.

The details

“Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” plays through Dec. 16 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call 858-550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.