'Pokemon Live!' Guides Us Into 21st-Century Theater

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Some of the audience had to be tethered to their third-mezzanine front-row seats, such was the excitement for the opening of "Pokemon Live." The stage show adaptation of the kiddie-cult Pokemon (Japlish for "Pocket Monsters") phenomenon has officially begun its year-long national tour at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Flying completely under critics' radar, and presented with zero irony, "Pokemon Live" reveals itself as the 21st century's version of "The Magic Flute."

Not to say it's as good as Mozart's final opera — not even close. But consider that "The Magic Flute" began as an 18th-century version of pop-culture entertainment just like "Pokemon Live." Furthermore, "The Magic Flute" gets its imagery from the Masons, a no less enigmatic cult than the Pokemon series of video games, television shows, movies and comic books. Both "Pokemon Live" and "Magic Flute" are deeply rooted in the iconography of their time.

Giant-sized GameBoy props flank the proscenium. Their screens work like big TVs, showing montages of the cartoon show to accompany songs, or sometimes displaying a close-up of one of the actors. The story opens as Ash Ketchum (Dominic Nolfi), the leading human of the Pokemon universe, and his pals Misty (Heidi Weyhmueller) and Brock (Dennis Kenney) set off on a trip to win the Diamond Badge, the rarest of all prizes given to Pokemon trainers.

Much like "Flute," Pokemon reflects our own world in strange and magical ways. It has been oriented entirely around pet creatures, the Pokemon, that start out cute and cuddly but can be trained to become fierce fighting monsters. They are then pitted in battles, like dog- or cockfighting, where they sustain pain and injury until a clear "winner" remains. Ash is a 10-year-old trainer, though for the stage show he and his friends were played by twenty-somethings. (This becomes disconcerting when his mother, looking the same age as him, laments his turning into a man; and Misty, who harbors a secret love for Ash, has moved well beyond training bras.)

Unfortunately Ash and company's quest turns out to be a plot by the evil Team Rocket, led by the dastardly Giovanni (Daren Dunstan), who use Pokemon in hopes of taking over the world. Giovanni has built Mecha-Mew2, a mechanical Pokemon capable of learning all Pokemon attack skills and returning them even more powerfully. The only remaining skills to learn are possessed by Pikachu, Ash's favorite Pokemon.

A lot of this show will strike an opera-goer as familiar. Presented recitative-style, with alternating spoken dialogue and songs that reveal characters' feelings and motivations, there are secrets revealed, kidnappings, bumbling henchmen, crude comedy and low-tech special effects like flash pots and strobes. Characters have solos, duets and ensemble arrangements, accompanied by interpretive dancers. There is even a pas de deux.

Some of the Pokemon are brought to life by "little people" in costume, and others are puppets, but most are just immobile dummies that get pushed around the stage by members of the chorus. As each new Pokemon appeared on stage a high-pitched roar of delight filled the auditorium. (I am pleased to say that Jigglypuff, my personal favorite, makes an appearance.)

"Pokemon Live" is a spectacle like many traditionally "classical" shows, but in support of a corporate product rather than a religion. (The finale's chorus goes: "You and me and Pokemon... One World.") Some see this as a sign of civilization's decline. Not so. Corpratization has become the predominant cultural force in America and much of the rest of the world. Naturally it appears in our entertainment, just as the cultural forces of Mozart's time appear in "The Magic Flute." What's interesting is how little this type of live show has changed. "Pokemon Live" is third- rate even by these standards, much less as a work of art, and Mozart would be appalled. But as a showman, he could relate.