EXTENDED THRU MARCH 19!
By Samuel L. Leiter
Emojis! Those ubiquitous computer images we attach to our emails offering shortcut messages showing feelings, foods, celebrations, machines, weather, flags, animals, and nearly anything we experience or come in contact with and want to share. No one yet has written the great emoji novel (Emoji Dick? To Kill an Emojibird?) but the smiling, sad, cockeyed, angry, goggle-eyed, worried, or otherwise expressive faces and their associated ideographs have starred in TV shows, in a major animated movie, and now, at the Duke on 42nd Street, in a colorfully splashy, 17-number musical called Emojiland: The Musical, originally presented by the New York Musical Festival in 2018.
To be honest, Emojiland is more of a 😍 experience than I expected. This is no small, throwaway, novelty musical but, under Thomas Caruso’s livewire direction and Kenny Ingram’s bouncy choreography, it is a highly polished work with a solidly sensational 14-member company. It’s also given a technically sophisticated production matching any you might find nearby on Broadway. I may not have been 😂 or 🤣 during its overlong two hours-plus performance, but I also didn’t feel like 😴.
Judging from the youthful-leaning 😁 😁 around me at the preview I attended, Emojiland, with its satirical take on 💻 geekdom, seems to have a fanbase ready to lap up the silly, juvenile plot and characters devised by book, lyrics, and music writers Keith Harrison and Laura Schein. (I even saw a cosplayer dressed like one of the archetypes.) Clearly, the show succeeds in reaching its goal, theatricalizing a world in which emojis live and interact, fall in ❤️, and 👊 back when their cyber-existence is threatened.
But there’s a lot more to appreciate, including Harrison and Schein’s spirited 🎶, with songs ranging from pop to rock to rap to rafter-shaking power ballads. The more or less generic score may not outlast the show but it’s consistently fun to hear.
The plot? Well, let’s just say it involves the romantic affections of the blond sweetheart, Smize (😊 Laura Schein, one of the writers), whose name conflates Smiling Face and Smiling Eyes, and the handsome, super-vain Smiling Face with Sunglasses (😎 Jacob Dickey), a.k.a. Sunny, who’s cheating with another blond, Kissy Face (😗 Heather Makalani, who also covers several other roles). Another love affair features a lesbian couple, the butch Construction Worker (👷♀️ Natalie Weiss) and the voluptuous Police Officer (👮🏿♀️ Felicia Boswell).
Complicating matters in this fantasy world are the va-va-voom Princess (👸 Lesli Margherita) and the fey, roly-poly Prince (🤴 Josh Lamon), who, at the urging of Man in Business Suit Levitating (🕴️ Max Crumm)—playing his entire role on a hoverboard—upgrades Emojiland with a firewall. Again with a wall! This nonetheless produces a new emoji, the super-intelligent Nerd Face (🤓 George Abud), who hits it off with Smize, to Sunny’s jealous annoyance.
Then, influenced by the charismatic but depressed Skull (💀Lucas Steele), a silver-haired Goth in black leather and mesh, who mournfully yearns to be deleted, Nerd Face creates a virus that unintentionally threatens all the emojis, a catastrophe that requires all of Nerd Face’s genius to prevent. Or something like that.
Rounding out the company are such figures as Man Dancing (🕺 Jordan Fife Hunt), Woman Dancing (💃 Tanisha Moore), and Guardsman (💂🏿 Dwelvan David). Finally, in lieu of the blues, we get the browns in “Pile of Poo,” sung by the eponymous 💩, in a bowel-warming, “special appearance” by the show-stopping Ann Harada. Unfortunately, her duties, so to speak, go no further. Whether she’ll one day wish to flush this character’s name from her credits only time will tell.
One thing that can’t be flushed or wiped away is the man for man, woman for woman excellence of the ensemble, several of them well-known figures on the New York stage. I can’t cite everyone but how can I not 👉 to the fabulous Lesli Margherita, the intense George Abud, the hypnotic Lucas Steele, the delicious Laura Schein, the jovial Josh Lamon, the bodacious Felicia Boswell, and the imposing Natalie Weiss?
David Goldstein’s striking set of artfully arranged pixel-like cubes is supplemented by James Roderick’s intricate, rock show-like lighting and the cleverly complex, perfectly coordinated, award-worthy video creations of Lisa Renkel and Possible. These alone, along with the comically creative costuming and makeup work of Vanessa Leuck, and the gorgeous hairstyling and wigs of Bobbie Zlotnik, will be enough reason for some folks to excuse the sophomoric hijinks and give this show a round of 👏.
Final thought. If emojis can inspire a movie and a musical comedy, can we assume someone’s working away on an M&M’s show?
Emojiland: The Musical. Through March 8 at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). Two hours, 20 minutes with one intermission. www.emojiland.com
Photos: Jeremy Daniel