See Pikachu Shock, Hear Snorlax Snore In Person
My seven- and four-year-old sons want to be the very best, like no one ever was. Perplexingly, it's Pokémon Gold at which they want to succeed, rather than soccer or math or controlling their tempers. They would travel across the land, searching far and wide, to understand the attacks, the evolutions, the collectible values of each Pokémon.
Like Ash Ketchum's mother, I am by definition too old to understand the nuances of Pokémon training...but I do understand the importance of trying to share my kids' adventures. Hence, when we learned that Pokémon Live! would be playing at a nearby college auditorium, we knew we all had to attend -- even those of us too old to receive a free giant MechaMewtwo card at the gate.
Though Pokémon's TV and film demographics encompass toddlers who like the cute critters, primary school kids whose Pokémon backpacks and sneakers show their affiliation, teens that collect rare Japanese foil cards, and adults who enjoy anime, the live show concentrates on holding the attention of the youngest audience members. At the afternoon performance we attended, children outnumbered grown-ups more than two to one. And they're clearly the audience of choice. Although a few special effects explosions, display screens, and revolving disco balls create the atmosphere of a concert, the production values of Pokémon Live! come closer to TV-themed stage shows at Disneyland.
Not that adults will get overly bored: the pace and brevity of Pokémon Live! guarantee that, along with all the energy and enthusiasm flowing from the audience. There are a lot of impromptu sing-alongs, and no one needs to be reminded after their first appearance to boo for Team Rocket. Every time a new Pokémon appears onstage, a tiny voice sitting somewhere near you will identify it.
The plot of Pokémon Live! concerns Ash's desire to win a coveted Diamond Badge, which he doesn't realize is just a ploy by nefarious inventor Giovanni to lure talented trainers to his lair. Inside, Giovanni has developed MechaMewtwo, a mechanical creature capable of learning and amplifying the attacks of all Pokémon. To complicate matters further, Giovanni kidnaps Professor Oak and Ash's mother -- who turns out to be a former girlfriend of the villain. (We were all hoping to hear him say, "No, Ash, I am your father," but they're probably saving that for the next movie).
The show's staging resembles an old-fashioned Broadway musical, with comic characters like Psyduck parading across the front of the stage to distract the audience when the curtain is lowered for scenery changes. More than half of the songs are familiar to fans from the Pokémon: 2BA Master CD, including the irrepressibly catchy "My Best Friends" and Team Rocket's "Double Trouble." Bad guys Jesse and James, who encourage viewers to boo and hiss at them, get more applause than overly earnest heroes Ash, Misty, and Brock -- but then, none of the good guys has fabulous purple hair likes James nor a skirt as mini as Jesse's.
Highlights for adults include an opening sequence in which Ash mimics Tom Cruise in Risky Business, dancing in his underwear to the Pokémon theme song, plus a sequence in which James asks Giovanni his position on campaign finance reform, social security, and 'Don't ask, don't tell.' Brock's big production number, a Grease-style rock pastiche, has him agonizing over the relative merits of Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy (whose facial features are indistinguishable, as we keep noticing on the big screens). Almost everyone applauds Pikachu's electric thunder-attacks, which scare some very small children. But it's awfully easy to be lulled to sleep during Misty's dreamy love song to a drowsing Ash.
Yet, kids seem most entertained when there are lots of Pokémon onstage, so they enjoy the lullaby that brings Mew, Butterfree, and various other flying Pokémon puppets swinging down from the rafters. When Act Two opens with "What Kind of Pokémon Are You?", nearly everyone in the audience sings along and giggles when the singer seems embarrassed over the line, "It'll kick your grass." The song "Pikachu -- I Choose You" also goes over very well, although Pikachu is a lot larger compared to the humans than his counterpart on film.
The melodious number "Everything Changes," warbled by Mrs. Ketchum and Professor Oak, inexplicably takes place onstage with three dancers performing an erotic pas-de-trois. Although I suppose the dancers are supposed to represent the professor, the villain, and Ash's mother, we don't know about her connection to Giovanni when the dance is performed, so it seems that perhaps the trio is supposed to be Ash, Misty, and Brock. While this provides definite food for thought about what they do at night in the woods, I don't think these are the kinds of thoughts parents would want their children having about Pokémon.
The show takes place on a raised stage with two large viewscreens on either side designed to resemble Pokédexes -- the hand-held devices used by trainers to identify and categorize Pokémon. During most of the songs, the screens feature theme-appropriate clips from Pokémon cartoons, but during certain solos, they show singing characters not always played by the same actors as we see onstage. This is particularly annoying during Misty's song, when the singer sustains notes much longer than the oversized face on the screen. The Giovanni onscreen is distorted to look elongated and ominous, but even without that effect it would be clear that the actor onstage has darker hair and broader shoulders.
The Pokémon puppets and costumes cover a huge range of quality; Mankey looks like a leftover throw rug, but Mewtwo (who gets the most applause of any non-human) looks and sounds just like his film counterpart. Meowth's costume could use some work, but as usual the character steals all of Team Rocket's scenes, and the actor we saw performed the accent perfectly. We were all disappointed there were no terrible smells when Vileplume took the stage, and were hoping for a Magicarp to go swimming down the aisle, but for the most part the Pokémon pass muster.
Vendors in the lobby sell Pikachu flags and "Pokéwands," which look like lightsabers with Pokéballs on the end. Kids wave these in the air pretty much throughout the show; fortunately they're easy to see around. The few teens we encountered were sort of embarrassed to be seen at Pokémon Live! unless they had younger siblings as an excuse to be there, but they did seem to be having a good time.
The performers are all young, cute, and energetic, though neither the choreography nor the coordination of the dances will impress anyone who has seen a dinner theater production of A Chorus Line. Can they sing? Do we care, since we're singing along? Can we imagine a way to cast a believable Pikachu or Misty without a really annoying voice, anyway?
Maybe it's different in Japan, but it's hard to imagine a Japanese version of Pokémon Live!. This show may be based on televised anime, but its antecedents lie in American musicals from The King and I to Annie to The Lion King, with the Solid Gold Dancers and the Backstreet Boys mixed in. If you have a rudimentary knowledge of Pokémon and an enthusiastic underage companion, you'll find that you're having a good time even as your eyes roll towards the projection of Haunter on the ceiling.