A second extension of the Hollywood Fringe Festival hit The Pokémusical made it possible for this reviewer to catch the much talked-about musical spoof of the animated Pokénon TV series and films, one which features quite a few laughs and some terrific performances. Despite those pluses, however, I must confess to having ended up a good deal less a fan of The Pokémusical than its rave reviews had led me to expect.

1000689_374388029349866_1207590647_n An almost complete unfamiliarity with the source material meant that many of the in-jokes that had audience members in stitches whooshed right over my head, something that might have mattered less if Pokémon’s worldwide popularity made more sense to me.

Here’s what this Pokémon virgin figured out from his first exposure to characters made famous in the Japanese children’s anime television series, which itself was a spin-off of a video game series first released in the mid 1990s.

Ten-year-old Ash Ketchum (a sensational Josey Montana McCoy) has as his lifelong goal to become a “Pokémon Master” with a Pokémon named Pikachu (Kelsey Schulte) as his tiny sidekick.  (I’m still not all that sure what a “Pokémon” is.)

1011428_374388112683191_797441084_n Characters he meets along the way include Ash’s arch rival Gary Oak (Tyler Ledon) and Gary’s grandfather Professor Oak (Steve Greene), Cerulean City Gym Leader Misty (Heather Ensley), Pewter City Gym Leader and Pokémon Breeder Brock (Richie Ferris), and the Team Rocket trio of Jessie (Jamie Mills), James (Peyton Crim), and Meowth (Josh Hillinger), whose goal is to steal as many Pokémon as they can find, Pikachu topping the list. (For those who wonder how I even grasped this much, I have a one-word reply: Wikipedia.)

1011949_374390449349624_1058701514_n I’ll be the first to admit that my inability fathom how on earth Pokémon became an international franchise may be generational. I’ve probably never played a video game in my life nor watched a single Japanese anime, nor have I ever had any itch to do so. That there’s a generation gap between myself and diehard Pokéfans was made amply clear by a simple glance at last night’s audience. I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by a younger crowd in my six-plus years of theater reviewing.

That’s not to say that I didn’t find myself entertained. The Pokémusical is at the very least a cute show (book by Alex Syiek), and the Pokémon are cleverly rendered as cardboard cutouts, the sole exception being Pokémon mascot Pikachu, referred to as “he” but brought to human-sized life by a “she.” (One of Syiek’s cleverer conceits is that while the outside world hears only Pikachu’s bird-like “Pika, pika,” the audience gets to hear Pikachu’s inner voice in Shakespearean-like soliloquies, though I have to admit I found these a bit too long and too many.)

Under Joanna Syiek’s lively direction, cast members deliver energetic and often quite terrific performances.

1235092_405041852951150_402899917_n McCoy simply couldn’t be more appealing as our spunky, wide-eyed hero Ash, and I look forward to seeing much more of this very talented new L.A.-based singer-actor (by way of Kentucky). Ledon follows his star turn in the hit musical Justin Love with another dynamic, engaging performance as Ash’s arch rival Gary. Ensley’s fierce and feisty Misty is a winner too, and Schulte makes for a delightful Pikachu (and has a way with iambic pentameter as well).

942676_374390262682976_432803768_n 1016900_374387912683211_672670039_n

Mills (so memorable in Gregory Nabours’ The Trouble With Words) has great fun letting loose her inner vamp as curvy redhead Jessie, Crim steals scenes right and left as a fabulously purple-haired James, and Hillinger is a hoot-and-a-half as cat-whiskered Meowth. Ferris, Greene, and ensemble members Ben Burch and Caleb Mills Stewart complete the undeniably talented cast. (Note: Some roles are double-cast and not all ensemble members appeared in the performance reviewed here.)

Songs by Alex Syiek (lyrics) and Andrew Cooper (music) are a lively bunch, though only “Pokémon Day” (the show’s full-cast opening number, and a dandy one at that) had me wishing for a second listen. Whoever choreographed “Ratata Tap” deserves a round of applause for some taptastic choreography (as do the Ratata Tappers who performed it). There’s a men-in-swimwear drag number (“The Sensational Sisters”) and a chorus of “Jigglypuffs” (who or whatever that is) singing and dancing to “Jiggypuff’s Canon” that are a lot of fun if more than a tad bizarre.

1069203_374388139349855_1433971084_n Book writer Alex Syiek delights in poking R-rated fun at Pokémon’s family-friendliness, making The Pokémusical most definitely one not for the kiddies. That being said, child characters saying “fuck” may be funny the first or the second time round, but after that it just ends up overkill.

There’s no quibbling whatsoever about Jennifer Lin’s excellent musical direction, or her impeccable live keyboard work alongside expert onstage drummer Tim Thavirat.

Though no effort has been made at set design (this is blackbox theater at its blackboxiest), Taylor Wilkerson’s lighting design adds color and flash and J Whitlark gets top marks for some very imaginative costumes inspired by the original Pokémon anime designs.

Wilkerson is stage manager as well, and Mitchell Webb is assistant director.  The Pokémusical is a Color And Light Theatre Ensemble Production in association with DOMA Theatre Company (which awarded it the [sponsored] DOMA Theatre Company Award for Best Musical at the Hollywood Fringe Festival) and Combined Arform.

I might have enjoyed The Pokémusical a good deal more had I not gone in with expectations raised high by nearly unanimous raves by both reviewers and Fringe festival attendees, a number of whom expressed pleasant surprise due to their own low expectations.

I wouldn’t let my lukewarm reaction to The Pokémusical keep any Pokémon fan from seeing their favorite anime musically spoofed at one of its three remaining performances. On the other hand, those for whom Pokémon has had considerably less allure may find their feelings about The Pokémusical more mixed than enthusiastic.

Theatre Asylum, The Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 6, 2013
Photos: Lyssa Samuel

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