If you’ve ever wondered about the private lives and inner thoughts of emojis and the impact software updates have on their interpersonal connections and eventual obsolescence, then Emojiland, with book, music and lyrics by Keith Harrison and Laura Nicole Harrison, is the “Texistentialist Musical” for you! Playing in this year’s New York Musical Festival – NYMF’s 15th anniversary season – the witty ensemble piece (and 2018 Richard Rodgers Award Finalist) gives an anthropomorphized look inside a smartphone at a community of singing and dancing, thinking and feeling digital icons – a roster of emoticons that you use every day on social media, but never really knew. As it turns out, they’re a lot like us.
Backed by a score of live electric music (performed by Justin Ward Weber and Conductor Jonathan Ivie on keyboards, Chris Biesterfeldt on guitar, and Giancarlo De Trizio on drums) and a full-scale projection screen of changing digital images (projection design by Lisa Renkel), an animated ensemble of twelve portrays a microcosm of human experiences, from love and loss, friendship and deceit, to power struggles and discord, sabotage and heroism, encountered by an engaging array of the popular pictographic archetypes. Referencing both classic Shakespeare and a post-modern high-tech vocabulary, the book and lyrics are clever, thought-provoking, and “emojional,” the original music – including a range of vibrant show tunes, romantic ballads, and rap – is lively, expressive, and perfectly-suited to the characters and their moods, and the uplifting moral – that we all matter and “It’s Just So Great To Be Alive” – brings a welcome reminder that when things go wrong, we can always “backspace, backspace, backspace” or hit the reset button.
The terrific cast, directed with high energy, humor, and heart by Thomas Caruso, features the ever-outstanding Lesli Margherita as the Princess, who rules Emojiland with a hilariously camp indifference to the needs of her digital populace and is happy to let them know that “Princess Is a Bitch.” Jordon Bolden turns in a haunting performance as Skull, the purveyor of doom and gloom inspired by the tragic existentialist angst and gravitas of Hamlet; his macabre prologue and stirring vocals (“Cross My Bones” and “Thank Me Now”) are among the highlights of the show. Co-creators Keith and Laura Nicole Harrison appear as Nerd Face (the new brainy emoji and expert techie whose knowledge of “Zeroes and Ones” is unsurpassed) and Smize (with a smiley face and smiling eyes on the outside, but “Sad on the Inside”) – the central simpatico pair that might get a second chance at connecting if only he can save the program from the destructive virus that would make it freeze and crash.
Rounding out the ensemble are Jessie Alagna, Brandon L. Armstrong, Chloe Fox, Cooper Howell, Megan Kane, Alex G. Kunz, Josh Lamon, and Angela Wildflower (whose heartfelt rendition of “A Thousand More Words” lauds the importance of eloquent language and direct communication in our increasingly post-lingual digital culture). Each and every one is consistently excellent, delivering the distinctive and funny emoji characterizations, spot-on harmonies, powerful solos, and spirited choreography (by Kenny Ingram). They are supported by an eye-catching design, with a backdrop panel depicting a computer memory board and movable light boxes that change colors with the story’s events and emotions (scenic design by David Goldstein); flat props made from computer print-outs (by Anthony Freitas); amusing costumes (Sarah Zinn) and makeup (Chloe Fox) that identify the familiar emoticons; and lighting (Jamie Roderick) and sound (Ken Goodwin) that evoke the workings of a smartphone.
Emojiland is an irresistible and ingenious musical for our digital age, with universal themes that connect us all – whether human or computer-generated – through time and space, and through the big question of being. It will keep you laughing and leave you thinking.