The cast of ‘Emojiland.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
By Ryan Leeds
From the opening moment when Man Dancing (Jordan Fife Hunt) takes the stage in a rainbow shirt and seventies suit, you can tell that Emojiland will be silly fun. Two summers ago, this socially relevant comedy tuner premiered at the now-defunct New York Musical Festival, where it was a runaway hit. The musical returns to Off-Broadways’ Duke Theater for a limited run. (Prediction: it will run much longer than planned.)
Keith Harrison and Laura Schein (book, music, and lyrics) have created a clever setting that, in many ways, reflects the state of our own society today. On the surface, it’s a basic tale of good versus evil: Nerd Face (George Abud) is tricked by Skull (Lucas Steele) into improving Emojiland, the digital world that exists within a smartphone. Prince (Josh Lamon) and Princess (Lesli Margherita) preside over their kingdom as Smize (Laura Schein) and her superficial boyfriend Sunny (Jacob Dickey) navigate the challenges of romance.
Dig a bit deeper, however, and you’ll discover themes of xenophobia, classism, depression, and female empowerment.
Emojiland is a visual feast, beginning with David Goldstein’s scenic design, primarily comprised of digital boxes meant to be life-sized pixels. Lisa Renkel and Possible video design offer eye-grabbing projections that are especially hilarious when Information Desk Woman (Heather Makalani) delivers breaking news. One favorite news flash: “Peach emoji files sexual harassment suit against tongue-out emoji.” Possible also contributed to the props, which are so numerous that they must keep props supervisor Anthony Freitas up at night. Costume and make-up designer Vanessa Leuck has included great detail in her spectacular costumes. It would have been easy to adorn this cast in bulky trappings, similar to the costumed characters in Times Square. Yet she’s taken the more challenging path of adapting cartoon characters into human form. The result is similar to David Zinn’s Tony-nominated designs for SpongeBob SquarePants.
Director Thomas Caruso and casting director Chad Eric Murnane have assembled a first-rate cast, each of whom has their moments to shine with Harrison and Schein’s hugely infectious score. One exception is Steele. Though darkly captivating, his Act I closer, “Thank Me Now,” is terribly loud, cacophonous, and hard on the ears.
Margherita perfectly inhabits the role she was born to play and steals the show early on in a number titled “Princess is a Bitch.” Later, she joins the equally funny Lamon for “New Crown in Town.” Natalie Weiss and Felicia Boswell, two powerhouses who play Construction Worker and Police Officer, respectively, bring the house down with their superb vocals in “Stand For.” In Act II, Boswell delivers a heart-rending ballad called “A Thousand More Words.” Abud is terrifically endearing as the underdog who is called to save Emojiland. And then there’s Ann Harada, who has the prestigious distinction of being cast as Pile of Poo. Her cameo is short-lived, but her cheery anthem, “Pile of Poo,” offers an encouraging reminder to get back up when life treats you like… well, you know.
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The producers of Emojiland clearly have deep pockets. It seems as though no expense was spared in this polished production. One wonders whether these digital faces will find their way to Broadway. Enjoyable as it is, the show could benefit from some edits. With a running time of nearly two and a half hours, it loses some of its zest. While the music—conducted with excellence by Lena Gabrielle—is generally strong, the songs could be a tad shorter.
Still, Emojiland is exactly the sort of musical comedy that we need more of: original, fresh, smart, and hugely entertaining. For that, it gets a big, bright, red heart. ❤️
Emojiland The Musical
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street NYC
Through March 8
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.