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NYMF 2018: Emojiland; If Sand Were Stone; Thicket & Thistle's What's Your Wish?

This is TheaterMania's roundup of reviews from the second week of the 2018 New York Musical Festival.

Keith Harrison plays Nerd Face and Laura Nicole Harrison plays Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes in Emojiland, directed by Thomas Caruso, for NYMF at the Acorn Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)


By Hayley Levitt

It's not scientific law, but prospects are generally poor for a musical whose eleven o'clock number is delivered by a poop emoji (even when you have someone as belt-tacular as Jessie Alagna playing said Pile of Poo). The fringe benefit of such grim expectations is that Emojiland, directed by Thomas Caruso, breezily surpasses them in the surprise of this year's New York Musical Festival. Husband-and-wife team Keith and Laura Nicole Harrison not only pair memorable melodies with thoughtful and clever lyrics, but they actually meet their subtitle — "A Texistential New Musical" — with more than just a few passing thoughts on how you can't judge an emoji by its interface.

We certainly do hear those grievances from Smize (short for Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes, played by Laura Nicole Harrison), a girl who feels stuck in her cheerful demeanor despite her well of complex underlying emotions (she and her fellow emojis are dressed by Sarah Zinn in mercifully subtle homages to their iPhone illustrations). A world that roots itself in fixed identities, however, naturally becomes a world that fears otherness, and we see that fear come to a head when Prince and Princess (self-centered monarchs played by the perfect comic duo of Josh Lamon and Lesli Margherita) scare the residents of Emojiland into supporting the construction of a firewall to prevent future cell phone updates that will bring new and unknown emojis. It's not a subtle metaphor, but it's a surprisingly apt one that the authors track all the way to the quarantine of the newest emojis upon suspicion of spreading a virus through Emojiland (you don't expect an allusion to Japanese internment to make it into a musical comedy, but there you have it).

To supplement the political commentary, the Harrisons have gone philosophical with an overarching thought experiment that pits nihilists against existentialists. Philosophy (and science fiction) buffs have probably heard of the Simulation Hypothesis — the proposition that our entire universe, most likely, is actually a computer simulation. Seeing as our cell-phone-based characters are aware of their origin story, Emojiland skips the what-if and moves on to the what-then — which is by far the more interesting question. Skull (a powerfully voiced Jordon Bolden) is all-too-painfully aware of his artificial existence and decides he would rather have no life at all than a life absent of meaning. On the contrary, Nerd Face (played ever so endearingly by Keith Harrison), appreciates the beauty of his mathematical coding and asserts his own significance in his synthetic cosmos. Call me a Pile of Poo, but Emojiland might inspire the most exciting postshow conversation you've had in quite some time.

Alexis Floyd (on chairs) leads the company of If Sand Were Stone, directed by Tyler Thomas, for NYMF at the Acorn Theatre.
(© Shira Friedman Photography)

If Sand Were Stone

By David Gordon

If Sand Were Stone, a musical with a book and lyrics by Carly Brooke Feinman and music by Cassie Willson, explores the emotional and physical journey of a family dealing with early onset Alzheimer's. Billie (Trish Lindström) is the afflicted party, a poet and mother growing increasingly more erratic. Her husband Marvin (Jonathan Christopher) is growing less and less patient, and has taken to sleeping with Billie's look-alike assistant Tracy (Tracy McDowell). Billie and Marvin's college student daughter Margaux (Alexis Floyd) knows something's up, but is unaware of the severity.

If Sand Were Stone is reminiscent of a NYMF selection from more than a decade ago: Next to Normal (or, Feeling Electric, as it was then titled). Willson's score has the same moody folk-rock feel (with fewer up-tempos), while Feinman's book is similarly concerned with the way a majorly difficult diagnosis plays out on the various members of a tight-knit family.

This show has potential, but what it needs is a little more levity and a lot more development. We don't get under the skin of the characters, particularly Billie and Margaux, nearly enough. Too much of the focus is inexplicably placed on Marvin's affair with Tracy, which should simply be a minor subplot. The audience can also see a lot of lyrics coming from a mile away, while other theatrical devices just plainly don't work. A quartet of "Spirits" underscores each scene as though they're living in the characters' minds feels particularly amateur.

The "spirits" bog down the production. Their M&M-colored jumpsuits by costume designer Machel Ross are distracting, as is their angular, movement-based choreography by Nora Thompson. Tyler Thomas's staging could also use some rethinking; in a scene where a deteriorating Billie sits to watch a movie, the back wall of the stage fills with a Three Stooges video, making it hard to pay attention to the rest of the scene.

Performance-wise, If Sand Were Stone is filled with very good ones. Lindström is wrenching as Billie, and Floyd's Margaux is tough as nails until she's not. If we got to know those characters a little better, it would firm up the sand and turn it into the rock-solid stone that this new musical could eventually become.

Joshua Stenseth, Juliana Wheeler, Kyle Acheson, Sam De Roest, and Lindsay Zaroogian star in Thicket & Thistles What's Your Wish?, directed by Jonathan Eric Foster, for NYMF at the Acorn Theatre.
(© Shani Hadjian)

Thicket & Thistle's What's Your Wish?

By Pete Hempstead

Don't let the sinister-looking tree-and-book advertisement for What's Your Wish? on the NYMF website fool you. The five-member troupe of actor-musicians who call themselves Thicket & Thistle have brought one of the liveliest, funniest shows of the festival to the Acorn stage at Theatre Row. Filled with campy humor, demented puppets, fun songs, and angsty teenagers trying to find their way home from a magical land, What's Your Wish? spins across the stage like an overcaffeinated Wizard of Oz with a PG-rated sex scene.

Whiny Nicholas (Kyle Acheson) wants only one thing for his 16th birthday — a car. But his mom (Juliana Wheeler) and her lame boyfriend (Joshua Stenseth) give him a pocket watch instead. Totally disappointed and misunderstood, he runs upstairs to the attic with his friend Brian (Sam De Roest) where they find an enchanted book that pulls them into a fantastical realm called Death Forest, ruled by an evil enchantress (Wheeler) and her reluctant servant, a wingless fairy named Gort (Lindsay Zaroogian). The enchantress needs the blood of two virgins (the only part of the show that skews dark) to really amp up her wicked powers and put an ecological blight on the land, so she sends Gort to fetch them. Once captured, Nicholas and Brian are determined to find their way home and escape the enchantress, and with the help of some woodland creatures, they find that the things they once wished for are no longer the things they need most.

All five members of this talented troupe sing and play a variety of instruments, including the accordion, mandolin, and banjolele. Acheson and De Roest are terrific dueting in the ode to teenage disappointment "When You're 16!," and Stenseth adds his brilliant comedic talent to the mix in "The Traveling Song." The folksy, almost improvisational quality they bring to the show is reflected in Travis George's set — with a ladder, chairs, a white sheet for shadow puppets, and a Foley artist table where the actors create hilarious sound effects.

Wheeler, in a garish red sequined costume designed by Genevieve Beller, is every bit the tyrant to Zaroogian's wingless fairy. There are political metaphors in their relationship that resonate today, but What's Your Wish? never delves too deeply into anything other than its theme of finding what you really want in the people you care about. And that's just fine for this lighthearted delight of a musical, a good choice for families with young teens. The contagious fun these five have onstage is all we could wish for now.