Review: “Emojiland: The Musical”

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(Photo: Playbill.com)

By Elyse Trevers

There are seven basic plots in literature. The challenge is how to be innovative since we’ve seen it all before. So Keith Harrison and Laura Schein decided to use emojis instead of people. After all, everyone is familiar with the popular digital images which express many of the emotions that people do. The pair created book, music & lyrics for “Emojiland: The Musical” at The Duke on 42nd Street. The icons fall in love, cheat on a significant other, create diabolical plots and even produce a virus.

The charming lighthearted musical includes the familiar characters, Smiling Face with Sunglasses, a.k.a. “Sunny,” and Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes, a.k.a. “Smize,” who are a couple. Others include Kiss Face, Skull, Construction worker, Police officer, Princess, and Man in Business Suit Levitating.

Act I begins with the news that there will be a major software update 5.0. So the emojis wonder how things will change and after the update, new emojis appear. Most notably are “Nerd Face” – played by George Abud – and “Pile of Poo” – played by the delightful Ann Harada. Dressed in a brown cascading dress, Harada only appears briefly, but she’s very funny. Her comical dialogue and song, “Pile of Poo” is filled with scatological references.

Every story needs a villain and here we have a couple. Sunny, played by Jacob Dickey, cheats on sweet Smize, who is played by Schein, but more dastardly is Skull, powerfully played by Lucas Steele, who represents death. Steele, with his Cruella DeVille two-tone hair and looking like a heavy metal singer has a mournful, soulful sound. Skull is despondent and befriends Nerd Face, explaining that he wishes to “self-delete.” He convinces Nerd Face to create a powerful virus for him but later decides to use the virus on everyone. How to stop it?

The emojis take everyone at “face” value which doesn’t help Nerd Face. Bullied by Smile, Nerd Face is a sympathetic character but also an intellectual one and his song “Zeros and Ones” is quite clever. The composers deftly incorporate modern computer jargon in the script and song lyrics as emojis sing of spyware and glitches and updates. Occasionally the music is a little loud for the intimate theater space.

Directed by Thomas Caruso, the show features Lesli Margherita as Princess in a song called “Princess is a Bitch” that gets a bit raunchy but that didn’t bother the 8-year old sitting behind me.

The show definitely has youth appeal and there were several young people in the theater with their families. The situations are easily recognizable. Nerd Face is mocked and bullied by Sunny for his goofy looks and high intellect. Nerd Face is immediately attracted to Smize but realizes that he doesn’t have a chance with the pretty emoji.

The wonderfully colorful costuming by Vanessa Leuck makes the show feel like a live cartoon. There are cardboard props which add to the two-dimensional flavor of the show.

The music is enjoyable with smart lyrics and, except for Poo’s number, there are few songs that would be specific only to emojis. In fact, “A Thousand More Words,” sung by Police officer, played by Felicia Boswell, when her lover is deleted, is a beautiful haunting love song that can stand on its own.

There’s a subtle political message in the musical as Princess and Prince, fearing a future upgrade that might introduce more powerful images, have a wall constructed. A firewall. When the virus begins to spread, they have the newest emojis, the ‘immigrants,’ detained and locked up. Although it sounds a bit like politics in this country, the theme never casts a pallor over this generally cheerful musical.

Get past the characters and “Emojiland “The Musical” is a traditional story that uses conventional plots. So what if the nerd is an emoji – think of Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors.” So what if Skull is a digital image, he could be the villain in any story, and although Sunny is a cartoon, he could be any human bully.

The show is generally fun. Okay, you’ve seen it all before but not quite like this. There’s also a sense of hope and rebirth by the end. Wouldn’t it be great if we all could have a reset to redo some of the dumb, bad decisions we’ve made? Maybe the next time, we’d do things right.

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