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Theatre in Review: Emojiland: The Musical (The Duke on 42nd Street)

Lesli Margherita, Max Crumm, Josh Lamon. Photo: Jeremy Daniel>

No surprises here: Emojiland is exactly what its title announces, a musical about those perky little emoticons that clutter up one's text messages. It's a premise that comes with built-in challenges: With a cast consisting entirely of one-note signifiers, engaging characters aren't on the table. Instead, the authors, Keith Harrison and Laura Schein -- responsible for book, music, and lyrics -- litter the action with subplots, apparently reasoning that you can't have too many thin, giggly narrative threads. Whether there is an audience for a show focusing on the emotional torments of smiley faces and princess images remains to be seen -- but, with its cheerful children's-theatre atmosphere and jokes sorely in need of updates, I was more than ready to unplug by the time the finale arrived.

"Life is a crazy dance/You don't get a second chance/Not when you're living in a phone." So goes the opening number, which introduces the characters and their conflicts. These include Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes -- aka Smize -- and Smiling Face with Sunglasses -- nicknamed Sunny -- who constitute the show's most prominent romance. ("We've been together since 1.0," they croon.) Too bad that, in her big solo, "Sad on the Inside," Smize reveals her yearning for a wider range of expressions. (You could say she is the Pagliacci of Emojiland, were you so inclined.) Even if Smize doesn't know about Sunny's habit of running off to the "Love Hotel" with the vacuous Kissy Face, she feels a vague sense of dissatisfaction. "I should feel happy/But I feel crappy," she laments, offering an early warning about the quality of the lyrics.

Also on hand are Construction Worker and Police Officer, who make up the show's halting lesbian love affair; Princess, an imperious aristocrat; Guardsman, who recalls the fellow who tries to keep Dorothy out of Oz in the film; Man in Business Suit Levitating (yes, there is such an emoji); and Skull, who dresses like Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal and speaks in a Boris Karloff lilt. New to town, following a 5.0 update, are Nerd Face, whose idea of a conversational icebreaker is "Anecdotal evidence can be a flawed syllogistic barometer," and Prince, an effete royal who jousts with Princess for pride of place. This last point proves to be crucial: Worried that they might be displaced by an even more authoritative figure in future updates, Prince and Princess agree to erect a firewall around Emojiland, keeping out newcomers. Not that anyone at the Department of Homeland Security is worried about it, but, when not offering up silly songs and comedy, Emojiland also functions as an airheaded parable about our broken immigration policy.

For example, the firewall plan rips apart Construction Worker and Police Officer, who end up on different sides of the political argument. Further complications are created when Nerd Face agrees to help Skull, who is in love with death, self-delete. (As the latter notes, "So my quest, as the code intended/Is not to rest 'til this life is ended.") The solution unleashes a virus that threatens all of Emojiland with annihilation, sending Nerd Face on an odyssey through the phone's operating system in search of the reset button that will unleash a mass emoji resurrection.

It's tempting to say that Emojiland itself is in need of a thorough reboot, but, really, this is just another high-concept graduate of the now-defunct New York Musical Theatre Festival; like so many others, it tries to coast on a skeletally thin sketch-comedy premise, filling two hours with material that gives out before ten minutes is up. Better jokes might have helped, but the book never rises above the level of zingers like the following: "Oh, you must be talking about the Princess of Egypt, then, because the bitch is in denial."

Is it a sign of the times that the director, Thomas Caruso, has managed to lure so much Broadway talent into this digital domain? If so, major likes and high-fives to George Abud as Nerd Face; I can't say for certain that his material is better than anyone else's, but he brings to it such precision and purpose that he alone consistently earns laughs. He also partners nicely with Shein, as Smize, for whom Nerd Face pines from afar. (They are, in many ways, the show's answer to Little Shop of Horrors' Seymour and Audrey.) As Princess, Lesli Margherita serves up her standard entitled-diva attitude, lording it over everyone and impressively executing the splits; then again, there's only so much you can do with a number titled "Princess is a Bitch," which reaches its height of wit in the title. Her Prince, Josh Lamon, swishes and throws shade like a pro, but the role is a moth-eaten stereotype. Lucas Steele, gleefully hams it up and sings powerfully as Skull, but the role is too silly for words. Max Crumm, rolling around on a hoverboard, is solid as the calculating Man in a Business Suit, who finances Princess' many schemes.

It saddens one that the great Ann Harada now must add the character Pile of Poo to her resume -- no, it's not a metaphor -- but you can't say she doesn't throw herself into the job, relieving herself of one lame gag after another. ("This is a doody of a day." "When you gotta go, you gotta go.") I couldn't make out the lyrics of her self-titled number -- and not just hers, by the way -- but maybe I was distracted by the background video, showing a Busby Berkeley chorus line of dancing plungers.

The latter effect is a small part of a remarkably elaborate production design for an Off-Broadway musical. David Goldstein's set -- which consists of a rickety, seemingly random pileup of boxes --- serves as a screen for the projections of Lisa Renkel and Possible, which includes various digital streetscapes, night deserts, and circuit boards. Vanessa Leuck's costumes and makeup are endlessly inventive, yet true to the characters' source imagery; the same goes for Bobbie Zlotnik's hair and wigs. Ken Goodwin's sound design is solid; if several songs are borderline unintelligible, the reasons lie elsewhere. Most of the humor in the numbers comes not from the lyrics -- which are, at best, basic -- but from cast members aping various pop-diva mannerisms, a strategy that ages quickly.

The songs are composed in a contemporary pop idiom that works all right, although too many of them mine a similar stylistic vein. The opening number, "It's Just So Great to Be Alive," sounds rather like Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," which may be why its melody lingers on. "Zeros & Ones," a duet for Nerd Face and Smize, is a charmer, and "A Thousand More Words," a torch song for Police Officer, benefits from the athletic vocals of Felicia Boswell.

Everyone else, including Dwelvan David (Guardsman), Jacob Dickey (Sunny), and Natalie Weiss (Construction Worker), carries on as if appearing in a smash hit -- which Emojiland, for all I know, may turn out to be. These days, you never know, especially given the moderate-to-positive press the show has received. The audience at the performance I attended seemed delighted by these two-dimensional antics. To my eyes, however, it's another nefarious intrusion of digital technology. If it's not quite Russian hacking, it's not far off. -- David Barbour

(23 January 2020)

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