Can't Make This Up: The Forgotten ‘Pokemon’ Musical
Turning popular children's cartoons into questionable live musical theater is certainly nothing we haven't seen before; it's happened with Rugrats, The Smurfs, and of course, the apex of this cash-grabbing phenomenon was arguably the denim and keytar-filled nightmare that was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Comin' Out of Their Shells tour. But we're here to talk about Pokemon Live!, the bewildering stage show from back in the year 2000. After the massive success of the Pokemon video games, anime, and to a lesser extent the rectally invasive Pokemon pencil-toppers, naturally the next step was a lavish two-hour musical featuring a mysterious new Pokemon you had to shell out 30 bucks per ticket to see.
And despite the fact that Pokemon swag was like adorable heroin to kids in the early 2000s, there was no home video version of the show ever released due to rights complications, further stoking fan curiosity over the ensuing years. The initial run of the musical toured the USA and Canada giving thousands of young fans to see Ash, Misty and Brock brought to life by overly exuberant adults pretending to be children.
Thankfully, a ton of footage of the event has surfaced online, so we have at least a sense of what this misbegotten production was like. The story opens with our hero Ash Ketchum being woken up by his mom, Delia, and Professor Oak. The pair are going on a trip and Ash essentially accuses them of sleeping together, which they suspiciously/defensively deny. Things just get weirder from there. Ash does a song and dance about how much he loves Pokemon in his underwear, and eventually Pikachu emerges -- less like in the cartoon, and more like a dude in a foam mascot costume was awkwardly hiding underneath the bed.
We then meet the villainous Giovanni, head of the evil Team Rocket. Admittedly, he's far less intimidating when belting out a loose imitation of a Backstreet Boys song.
There's also a surprising amount of romantic tension for a children's musical about collectable monsters. Brock, like in the cartoon, is obsessed with girls and even gets his own solo tune all about the joys of polygamy. Meanwhile, Misty, who is only 10, is secretly in love with Ash and bitterly jealous that he, another 10-year-old, is more interested in collecting Pokemon than in having a relationship with her. (Again, they're both 10.) And while all this is going on, Delia and Professor Oak are captured by Giovanni -- just after Delia sings a song about how bummed she is that her son is about to go through puberty. It's here that the story provides the most notorious wrinkle to the Pokemon canon.
While imprisoned, Delia confesses that she wasn't always an "upstanding woman" and used to date Giovanni when they were teenagers, which is a bizarre twist that never penetrated the larger Pokemon mythos. According to the musical's writer Michael Slade, they were trying to suggest that the villain, not unlike Darth Vader, was secretly the hero's "biological father." While it was "never officially said" it was meant to be "implied." This also leads to several scenes where Giovanni creepily hits on Ash's mom while keeping her in a literal cage.
In the end there's a big Pokemon fight, which basically amounted to some back-alley fireworks being set off next to a large puppet, followed by clips of the cartoon playing on a giant TV while all of the actors stand perfectly still.
Ash is victorious and his mother eventually tells him the truth about her and Giovanni -- although not the part about him probably being Ash's father, because why be too truthful? Ash forgives his mom for dating a jerk in high school, which doesn't really seem like a thing a parent should ever ask their child to do. Oh, and Misty continues to keep her feelings for Ash bottled up deep inside, presumably because that's where we should all keep our feelings all of the time until they explode.
If all of this seems kind of confusing, the show's wonkiness can, at least partly, be explained by what went on behind the scenes. Slade claims he was given just two weeks to write the script for the multi-million dollar production, after he was sent a VHS tape of the first Pokemon movie to understand what the hell Pokemon even was.
Weirder still, the original plan was to hire a little person actor in a costume to play Pikachu, but during a meeting one Nintendo executive took issue with that plan because Pikachu should be 18 inches tall -- 19 inches at most. This was a problem because A) the shortest actor they had met with was 33 inches, and B) the show was opening at Radio City Music Hall which seats 6000 people, most of whom would have needed a goddamn telescope to see a foot-and-a-half high animatronic Pikachu strutting around the stage. Nintendo eventually conceded, but only after the producers agreed to cast the tallest possible actors to play Ash and his friends.
They also had to scrap the original finale which involved a bubble-blowing Pokemon whose bubble mechanism was basically an unimpressive children's toy. And the show's technical limitations meant they had to focus less on the Pokemon characters and more on the "human element," which is presumably why Ash's mother's sexual history became the focal point of this cartoon-based musical. Or, as the show's director claimed, Pokemon Live! gave kids a "true three-dimensional representation of what they saw on TV" with an "honest-to-God story with dramatic content" for adults.
Meanwhile, a lot of the show's profits seemingly came from lightsaber-like toys sold at each performance, which were basically just flashlights with an unnecessarily phallic hunk of plastic stuck to the end.
Of course, selling working flashlights to thousands of small children wasn't without its drawbacks; not only did it distract the actors, but the lights ruined an entire scene that utilized blacklights, thus requiring darkness. The show also featured future Book of Mormon and Girls star Andrew Rannells as Team Rocket's James; he later confided that, in retrospect, he would have rather done "a snuff film or porn" than Pokemon Live!, adding: "I've never been so sad." According to Rannells, he and the (occasionally sobbing) cast were so despondent while touring the show that they "boozed it up like idiots" and would "shut down the bar at every hotel" they stayed at.
While the U.K. run of Pokemon Live! Was eventually cancelled, the show was revived in various other countries; Pokemon Live took "Dubai by storm" in 2001, later moving to Portugal, and Mexico, where the entire cast wore haunted death masks for some reason.
Today, the Pokemon Live! legacy is preserved by fans who have cobbled together "restorations" of the original production. Oh, and also by the brave souls who discovered basically an unmarked grave full of the show's rotting puppets, which were apparently stashed away in an abandoned, slightly terrifying, Canadian theatre for reasons best never investigated.
At least the show never gave any children seizures ... that we know of.
Top Image: Radio City Entertainment