In The Spotlight: Des McAnuff returns for rock extravaganza premiering at Playhouse

By Diana Saenger

It won’t be the first time the theater world embraces a rock band for a production, but La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” with the music of The Flaming Lips, promises to be the most interesting.

The Playhouse and San Diego theater fans welcome back former Playhouse Director Emeritus Des McAnuff, who is directing the musical, the idea for which was “born” in 2005, during McAnuff’s last year as Artistic Director.

“I was aware of the album and listening to it during those months,” McAnuff said. “I spoke with Chris Ashley about it then, but only got serious about it two years ago, and he was very enthusiastic about it.”

McAnuff was not only very attuned to the music of The Flaming Lips, but the band performed “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” at the opening of “Jersey Boys” on Broadway in 2005. Eventually, The Lips’ Wayne Coyne approached McAnuff to imagine it as a theatrical piece.

“I played it in the car several times and gradually got some notions about it,” McAnuff said. “I met with them and Wayne, and I bounced a lot of ideas around; it was an eccentric process. I extracted story ideas and themes from three of their albums — ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,’ ‘The Soft Bulletin,’ and ‘At War with the Mystics.’ Wayne gave me feedback and his blessing. He’s a terrific songwriter, a very theatrical artist, and he responded to this in a positive way.”

The story of acceptance, love, optimism and conformity centers on Yoshimi (Kimiko Glenn), a young Japanese artist fighting for her life who needs exceptional power and help. She enters a fantasy world as a Japanese warrior and pink robots become a manifestation of her illness.

McAnuff said the story is sung all the way through with very little spoken dialogue.

“It’s a contemporary story that takes place in our world and is multi-layered with psychedelic rock arrangements. It’s visually told through a real team effort of choreography, set designs, puppets, a great cast and wonderful projection-artist Sean Nieuwenhuis (“Jesus Christ Superstar”). He does some great things with Robert Brill (“Creditors,” “The Wiz”), my longtime scenic designer, and Basil Twist (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), one of the county’s most eminent puppet artists.

“Music Director Ron Melrose, who worked with me on ‘Jersey Boys,’ is very inventive and imaginative, but faithful to The Lips’ songs. I’m also thrilled to have cast members Paul Nolan who played Jesus in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at the Playhouse, and Kimiko Glenn, who was the princess here in ‘The Nightingale.’ ”

Beginning at the Playhouse in 1983, McAnuff has directed 30-40 productions. His resume also includes work on films, TV and Broadway. He’s earned more than 200 awards, including two Tonys as Best Director (Musical) for “Big River” (1983) and “The Who’s Tommy” (1993), and he plays in the Red Dirt Band.

McAnuff is currently winding up five years as the Artistic Director at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

He said walking the stage once again at the Playhouse brings back many memories, but at the moment, he’s all about “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.”

“I think the audience will find it an inspiring story with a lot of heart. People seem to have a strong emotional reaction to it. I think Wayne and the band will capture that in this production. It combines science and art in a fresh way and belongs here in the 21st century.”

If you go

■ What: ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’

■ When: Matinees, evenings Nov. 6-Dec. 16

■ Where: Mandell Weiss Theatre, UC San Diego campus

■ Tickets: From $15

■ Box Office: (858) 550-1010

■ Website: