I stood outside the Asylum Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard at 11:59 PM on a Saturday, leering with an exhaustion that trickled through like molasses. I turned to my date, wincing through my fatigue, “I really hope this Pokémon musical sucks balls.”
I had first heard of The Pokemusical by way of Groupon, which has undergone something of a transformation—it used to be for consumers looking for a good deal, but now it seems to be a way for ailing businesses and about-to-fail shows to wave flags that say, "We surrender! Please please please give us almost any amount of money for our goods and services!" It's still a decent way to get discounts, but it's an even better way to discover bizarre projects that never should have existed in the first place.
So naturally I figured I'd be experiencing off-key voices, patchy dialogue, and terrible dance moves. I was prepared for a room of sweaty nerds resting solely on their references. I was prepared for an audience of their friends clapping despite their hackneyed performances. I was prepared to run home and trash the evening, gleefully telling everyone I knew how awful it was. What happened on Saturday night ruined these preparations.
MIDI versions of the Nintendo games’ soundtracks played as the audience took their seats. I struggled to remember any fragments from the cartoon’s 1990s run, but all I found in my memory database was the show’s blaringly kick-ass theme song. Spoiler alert: it was not played during the entire performance.
The musical, which is written by Alex Syiek and directed by Joanne Syiek, does a fairly good job at injecting you with the mildly embarrassing awareness that you are, in fact, attending a Pokémon-themed musical right from the start. The lights rise on Ash, the ten-year old Pokémon trainer, as he’s abruptly nudged by his hypersexual Mom (just the first example of the show’s, ah, creative license). The first high-energy number, called "Pokémon Day!" erupts onto the small stage as all characters peek out of curtains and cubbyholes to greet Ash as he starts his journey.
I gripped my date’s hand and made my first round of apologies. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” A rainbow of characters kick-ball-changed their way through the start of Ash’s adventure to Kanto and all I could think about was how many jokes I could make regarding the wideness of the lead actor’s eyes.
His name was Jose Montana McCoy and his enthusiasm could power multiple Smart Cars. Initially, I was a little annoyed at him, but Ol' Googly Eyes started to grow on me. Perhaps it was the commitment he gave to portraying an anime character with as much realism as three dimensions could bear. Perhaps it was his believability as Ash—he was really clenching onto the hope that he could really, truly become "the very best Pokémon Master." By the end of the first act, I was hooked, ready to follow him down the rabbit hole with the sunny optimism of a million Sailor Moons.
One lesson to glean from this heartfelt production was practice, practice, practice. I spotted several bits that I suspected may have faltered in execution during earlier runs but had improved with time. For example, when James of Team Rocket makes the joke, “It’s like stealing candy from a baby," and Jessie adds, “Yes, just like stealing candy from a dead baby," it could have been bad. It probably was bad in previous versions. But she holds it and commits to it. The magic is truly contained in that extra beat of silence. It’s that slow roll as the audience realizes just how long it’s been since another character spoke that really starts the laughter. “What... the... fuck, Jessie,” he responds. Boom! One of the biggest laughs of the night.
Later, Misty (Ash's platonic lady companion, played by Heather Ensley) and Brock (his jock-y bro-companion played by Richie Ferris) are remarking that perhaps Ash has “gone too far” with his quest. He’s working Pikachu with too much aggression, causing Pika to grow calluses on her/his/its sausage-like claws due to all the Poké-battling. It’s all about the little details, and whoever’s idea it was to have Ash step into the scene like he’s stepped off the set of Trainspotting was brilliant. Ash’s eyes roll back into his skull as he demonically incants. “DO IT! FINISH HIM!” to an exhausted Pikachu. This brings on the kind of laughter that lingers and haunts you well into the next day.
The key to this production was balance. It’s OK to dabble in some of the “shock value” jokes from time to time, such as Jessie’s dead baby take, but excess is truly the enemy in this arena. When Ash exhales an exasperated sigh every time he spots his rival, Gary (played with perfect nuance by Tyler Ledon) besting him on his path before shouting, “Fucking Gary!" it’s the perfect beat. One more of those jokes, and you would’ve lost the magic.
One element of the show that seemed to falter was having Pikachu (Kelsey Schulte) turn to the audience and recite a Shakespearianesque monologue recapping her inner thoughts. I liked this idea, and would find it funny if pitched in a TV writer’s room, but the audience rarely bit at it. My guess is that it was such an abrupt tonal change that the humor was lost. The silver lining is that I’m sure Kelsey has a solid career ahead of her in Shakespeare in the Park productions of The Taming of the Shrew. There are worse things in this world.
Pop-culture parody plays like The Pokemusical, Point Break: Live!, and Terminator Too: Judgment Play have become surprisingly popular, and sometimes they can feel like cop outs. Part of me doesn’t blame the theater folk who put them on, though, as it’s a struggle to draw any human away from her computer for longer than 30 minutes.
The Pokemusical was more than a novelty, and more than a cry for help via Groupon. The play's genuine approach was the real deal. To sing songs with trained voices (as opposed to the karaoke variety), recite jokes with a practiced ease, and perform with the slick confidence that can only come from someone never taking a night off is not an easy feat, and these performers nailed it.
I enjoyed this show, and I would recommend it to other people, something I'd never thought I'd say going in. It’s for those who are open to an evening filled with a vibrancy hard to find in this culture of snark and cynicism we sedate ourselves with. It reminds me of a lesson I learned performing in a production of The Sound of Music when I was 13 years old: if you approach something with confidence, you can do anything. (The audience from that show still doesn’t realize I messed up on my entrance a half-dozen times.)
I walked away from the small black-box theater on Santa Monica not only filled with the disarmingly positive vibe the show creates, but the relief in knowing that my chance at a second date was still pretty strong. And for that, Pokemusical, I thank thee.
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