We’re Floating in Space

Audiences for the highly-anticipated Flaming Lips musical “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” will likely be divided into two general camps: musical theatre fans in search of a contemporary spin on the genre, and Flaming Lips fans eager to witness yet another manifestation of the legendary band’s psychedelic glory. To the former group: see this play. It’s a cute, ultra-modern love story that gives way to jaw-dropping technological spectacles at nearly every turn. The songs are fantastic as well; you should check out the guys who wrote them — they’re incredibly talented.

To the latter: proceed with caution.

An initial surprise for both parties, however, is just how grounded the play (whose source material and ad campaign promise a “space-psych odyssey”) is. The story, written by Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and director Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”), follows a painter named Yoshimi (the electric Kimiko Glenn) as she fights a rare and potentially deadly form of lymphoma and, in a parallel reality developed by her video game designer ex-boyfriend, a horde of pink robots.

Devoid of un-sung dialogue, character interactions are carried solely by stitched-together narratives of the individual Flaming Lips songs — a notion that wouldn’t necessarily cripple the storytelling if the story wasn’t so intent on keeping its most interesting characters silent. Yoshimi’s Wall Street broker boyfriend Booker (the vocally talented Nik Walker) sticks around just long enough to make the love triangle interesting before he is inexplicably tossed off stage. Yoshimi’s parents are two-dimensional caricatures. Even the titular character herself is kept shamefully silent, spending most of her time lying in a hospital bed. And despite her dazzling karate skills and a few beautifully helmed songs, we never get to know who she is or what she’s fighting so desperately for.

In fact, the only character we really get to know is Ben (Paul Nolan), an ill-informed attempt at an awkward-but-lovable ex-boyfriend who really just comes across as a pathetic weirdo (due in part to a woefully out-of-touch wardrobe and, more importantly, the fact that he spends most of the play acting like a voyeuristic creep). What’s more is that we only “hear” Ben via his text messages and iPad notes (and yes, a lot of serious communication takes place on our smart phones these days, but the unrelenting insistence on making everything so “contemporary” often feels empty, transient and desperate for relevance).

Thankfully, the production’s visual splendor during the video game “imaginings” makes up for many of “Yoshimi”’s pitfalls. Set designer Robert Brill and legendary puppeteer Basil Twist in particular help the robot-battle sequences reach intense, dazzling heights. In one such scene, Ben reveals his most impressive creation in the dream/game-scape: a towering, 14-foot robot who croons an enchanting vocoder swan song of love in an attempt to heal Yoshimi.

Interestingly enough, “Yoshimi”’s musical numbers consistently work best when Wayne Coyne’s naive and poignant lyrics are interpreted most literally. “Race for the Prize,” for example, actually chronicles two competing scientists shaking hands and working head-to-head for a cure. It’s all absurd fun. Second-act opener “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” — despite being seemingly plucked from some unrelated musical — is also brimming with the wacky, child-like phantasmagoria promised by the Flaming Lips name.

Given the precious source material, it’s far too easy to be overly critical of “Yoshimi.” It’s also important to remember that this is the same band that made a low-budget surrealist sci-fi film entitled “Christmas on Mars,” wrote and recorded a single for the “SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and screen-printed a batch of posters using Coyne’s blood as ink. Despite the fact that a bit more attention to the script and characters would’ve done the production a massive service (screenwriting great Aaron Sorkin was originally signed to write the book, but he walked out on the project when it was decided the play would be sung-through), we have to admire the insane ambition and sheer whimsy behind these creative detours. Without them, the Flaming Lips just wouldn’t be the Flaming Lips.