Since emojis first made an appearance in Japanese technology in the late 90s, they have grown into a language within themselves, shifting the way that humans virtually communicate and even making the Oxford dictionary word of the year in 2015 (with the laughing, tear emoji). With that understanding, it was disappointing to find that Emojiland, the new musical from Keith Harrison and Laura Schein now playing The Duke on 42nd Street, didn’t contain any deeper message for (or symbolism of) the human experience in relation to communication in this digital age. The musical, which contained the volume and energy of youth theater but featured songs like “Princess is a Bitch,” instead relied on the punch line of familiar emojis personified, which (stretched out over nearly 2.5 hours of performance) was quickly tired.
That being said, the piece was performed by an all-star cast who gave big, emoji-worthy performances and executed Kenny Ingram’s punchy, larger-than-life choreography with force and intention. Each performance was an impressive feat of energy, and reputable musical theater professionals like Lesli Margherita (Princess), Lucas Steele (Skull), and Ann Harada (Pile of Poo), as well as newcomers Heather Makalani (Kissy Face) and George Abud (Nerd Face) brought star-quality to their performances despite the one-dimensional nature of playing a “princess” or a “kissy face.” They gave the characters life and what depth they could, despite the lack of character growth or change given in the script.
Additional stand-out performers were Felicia Boswell (Police Officer) and Natalie Weiss (Construction Worker), whose charming love story, coupled with their out-of-this-world vocal capabilities, really brought down the house. I found myself incredibly charmed every time the two of them were together on the stage.
The true star of the show, however, was Vanessa Leuck’s incredible costume and make-up design. Each performer was dressed to the nines in a literal and symbolic representation of the emotion or “character” they were there to represent. The costumes were all-encompassing, from their shiny boots to the glittery wigs atop most performer’s heads (designed by Bobbie Zlotnik), they added color to the white-blocked set design of David Goldstein, when it wasn’t being animated by the digital world created in Lisa Renkel and Possible’s projection design. Leuck also added subtle treats for those who looked closely enough at the character’s attire: you could see that many of the characters were adorned with accentuating ribbons of binary code - referencing the emoji make-up and Nerd Face’s song “Zeros and Ones.”
Unfortunately, Emojiland feels too simple and straightforward to add any real substance to your night at the theater, but it is not family-friendly enough to be accessible to the children whose appetite is perfect for its energy. Performed fabulously by the all-star cast, it is an entertaining and wonderfully designed piece that falls short of its potential in narrative and meaning.
(Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
"Cats got you down? Looking for a bright new musical with costumes that will make you laugh because they’re meant to? And, for bonus points, a legible plot? Emojiland, the delectably silly-smart confection that opened on Sunday night at the Duke on 42nd Street, might be just the thing — the kind of sheer fun that sends you back into the world feeling a little more upbeat."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times
"With 16 musical numbers, dozens of characters, three main plot lines (including a heavy-handed political one about building a firewall) and a running time of well over two hours, Emojiland is a case of more-is-way-too-much—
Raven Snook for Time Out New York