Emojiland Asks, Is It Really So Great to Be Alive?
Keith Harrison and Laura Schein wage war on nihilism inside an iPhone in their new musical at the Duke on 42nd Street.
Emojiland was a stand-out at the 2018 New York Musical Festival — and perhaps the last production to be able to leverage that platform. On a roster of underwhelming projects that ranged from overinflated to overly earnest, Emojiland had a gimmicky concept that wrapped its arms around some big ideas with surprising success: simulation theory, xenophobia, and the corruption of monarchical power among them (cue Lesli Margherita in a princess crown dancing with the egomaniacal power of a birthday girl on My Super Sweet 16).
Now in a full production directed by Thomas Caruso at the Duke on 42nd Street, Emojiland still has all of those assets to its credit — not to mention a crystal-clear spirit of good intentions and optimism (or at least anti-nihilism). It all just feels a little less remarkable in its new quarters, even with its substantially enhanced production value (scenic designer David Goldstein has built a towering pixelated paradise while costume designer Vanessa Leuck charmingly reimagines a throng of emoji lewks).
There are a lot of moving pieces in the plot. But to make a too-long story shorter, Emojiland is set in the sunshiny innards of an iPhone on the eve of an update, which will bring new emoji to town and perhaps add nuanced layers of feeling to the existing ones — at least that's what the perpetually happy Smize (the musical's coauthor Laura Schein) is hoping for. What the update ends up bringing Smize is a new friend by the name of Nerd Face (George Abud), a scientist of sorts who values truth and curiosity, and is the polar opposite of Smize's bullish cool-guy boyfriend, Sunny (Jacob Dickey).
On the regal side of Emojiland, the update creates a Prince (Josh Lamon) to join Princess (Margherita) in her castle — a development Princess is not too keen on. Prince and Princess quickly become besties, but they're not willing to press their luck with another upgrade that might bring a King or Queen into the fold. So with some advisement from Man in Business Suit Levitating (Max Crumm bringing subtle capitalist villainy), Prince and Princess order the construction of a firewall, pedaling fear of invading emoji. Meanwhile, a spurned Nerd Face befriends resident outcast Skull (Lucas Steele, giving dark Jud Fry energy in an operatic tenor), which leads him to agree to assist Skull in…committing suicide.
It's a pretty heavy turn of events, but in the innocuous world of emoji, even the most disturbing things can stay in the realm of thought experiment: Does life have inherent value? Is it rational to fear the outsider? Can someone's insides be at odds with their outsides? Schein and her coauthor Keith Harrison capitalize on that strength, even as the journey through all of these plot points becomes a bit of a slog.
Schein and Harrison break it up with pleasant, pop-inspired songs, each with a different degree of re-listen value. Smize's character song "Sad on the Inside," for example, isn't going to make anyone's list of favorite showtunes, whereas Police Officer's Act 2 ballad "A Thousand More Words" is a total showstopper in the extraordinary hands of Felicia Boswell. And I thought no one could top Natalie Weiss's Act 1 solo "Stand For" as Police Officer's romantic partner Construction Worker.
I'm inclined to say that Boswell and Weiss are the musical's power couple, but Emojiland, of all things, has stiff competition in that category: Lamon and Margherita (who death-drops in her big solo "Princess Is a Bitch") are an endless delight to us and each other in their royal partnership; and as Nerd Face, Abud partners beautifully with both Skull and Smize, bringing incredible dimension to a character with one personality trait. Emojiland in a vacuum ranges from solid to underwhelming, but performance-wise, this production is an embarrassment of riches (I mean, who doesn't want to see Ann Harada perform a musical number as a Pile of Poo?).
Sure, by the time Nerd Face unearths his heroic side to save Emojiland from a permeating virus, you're a little fatigued from the techy metaphors and gamified atmosphere — as if you've stared too long at the screen of your iPhone. But to Emojiland's great credit, there aren't many other off-Broadway musicals with a whole host of performances that can be described by the "Shocked Face With Exploding Head" emoji.