By Ron Fassler
In full disclosure, I was first introduced to the skills and talents of Emily Koch (pronounced “cook”) when she was fourteen years old in a Los Angeles middle school production of Les Miserables. As Eponine, that cap-wearing gamine, she not only sang the hell out of her second act solo “On my Own,” but acted it superbly. It was clear she was a force to be reckoned with and the next thing I knew, she was performing on Broadway in the roles of Elphaba in Wicked and Jenna, the eponymous lead in Waitress. Figures, right?
All that’s left is for someone to write an original role for her so that she can take things to the next level, just as creatives have done for the likes of Katrina Lenk and Ben Platt. Until that happens, Emily has taken things into her own hands and created a show that she presented last evening for one-night only at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Titling the show “EMULBOY5: A Pre-Teen Saga about Love, Fandom and Identity” and running under an hour, it is an autobiographical comedy about her middle-school years (just prior to that Les Miz I saw), in which her awkward teenage diary entries provide enough comedy and drama to make for a delightful entertainment. And get this for a twist: instead of writing “Dear Diary,” Emily chose to write to the fictional character in whom she most identified: Elphaba Thropp. Yes, the green girl she would go on to play on Broadway. Life imitates art.
In a series of her diary entries we meet a young girl at a loss after her best girlfriend moves away. Mourning, she decides to change her name for a time from Emily to Emul and pretend she’s a boy. Puppy love, fear of pimples, getting the lead in the school play… otherwise mundane teen angst all get dealt with in hilarious fashion and often touchingly so. With expert music direction from Evan Rees, an inspiring motif was that whenever Emul had an epiphany of some sort (especially romantically), those famous Stephen Schwartz trills from Wicked would find their way across Rees’s keyboard. In fact, the show is entirely scored with Broadway show tunes hand-picked for comic effect to reflect Emul’s state of mind. And with a voice as distinctive as Emily’s (she reminds me of Melissa Errico with a similar mastery of her vibrato), you get sensational renditions of such songs as “He Touched Me,” written for the 1965 flop musical Drat! The Cat! and made famous by Barbra Streisand on one of her earliest albums (her then-husband Elliot Gould was the show’s male lead). Other standouts included “It’s All the Same” from Man of La Mancha and “Forget About the Boy” from Thoroughly Modern Millie in addition to songs from Big River, Hair and Beauty and the Beast.
Joining Emily were Tess Soltau (The Addams Family, Wicked), Liana Hunt (Mamma Mia, Bright Star), Jake Boyd (Rock of Ages, Carrie) and Nick Rehberger (The Glass Menagerie, Fiddler on the Roof), all of whom lent admirable support. The fine direction was by Colton Pometta, who kept all the balls in the air with precision timing.
It’s one thing to be a young girl obsessed with Broadway and it’s another to grow into a mature young woman and have your dreams realized, which Emily Koch most certainly has. I think she has an original idea here that may only just be the beginning of something more substantial if she puts the time and effort into making it into a larger statement on the world of theatre and its power to transform lives.