Wednesday, January 29, 2020

REVIEW: Emojiland

Review of the Saturday, January 25, 2020 matinee performance at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City. Starring George Abud, Felicia Boswell, Max Crumm, Jacob Dickey, Ann Harada, Josh Lamon, Lesli Margherita, Laura Schein, Lucas Steele and Natalie Weiss. Book, Music and Lyrics by Keith Harrison and Laura Schein. Scenic design by David Goldstein. Costume and Make-up design by Vanessa Leuck. Lighting design by Jamie Roderick. Sound design by Ken Goodwin. Projection design by Lisa Renkel and Possible. Choreography by Kenny Ingram. Direction by Thomas Caruso. 2 hours, 10 minutes, including one intermission. Closes March 19, 2020.

Grade: A

A giant lock screen glows the date and time in the back wall, while piles of glowing, colorful pixels cascade around the circuit board floor. We are inside a cellphone and visiting Emojiland, the hilarious, poignant but not too serious show that is pure comfort food. It is the perfect antidote to our techno-centric world. Written by newcomers Keith Harrison and Laura Schein and now enjoying an extended off-Broadway run, this charming musical tells the tale of emojis just living their lives until an upgrade brings fear and doubt to the land. The imperious leader decrees that a virus threatens their safety, and that all emojis that are new are not to be trusted. A firewall must be constructed, she says, to ensure their continued existence. Yes, this is a topical show, and it's point is clearly made, but mostly it is just a fun escape.

Selfie! The Emojiland Company

The score is full of delightful numbers, tongue firmly planted in cheek, and in a variety of pop/showtune flavors. The script is equally good-natured - full of puns, topical jokes and lots of laughs. But it also has heart, and just enough substance to balance things and make us care. The show is in the same family as Avenue Q. Staged with the same tongue-in-cheek flair by director Thomas Caruso and choreographer Kenny Ingram, their creativity seems to know no bounds - poles, piles of blocks and an endless stream of recognizable emoji bring this fantasy land to life. The production values are high with dazzling lighting with cool lasers (Jamie Roderick), lively video (Lisa Renkel and Possible) and colorful, spot-on costumes (Vanessa Leuck).

"The Progress Bar"
The cast is terrific. As 🕴🏼, Max Crumm nails the mysterious quality of odd floating businessman, with just the right amount of sleaze as he manipulates the action while zooming around on a hoverboard. As loving couple 👷🏻‍♀️ (Natalie Weiss) and 👮🏾‍♀️ (Felicia Boswell) are sweet together, and both have amazing voices. Boswell belts the emotional "A Thousand More Words" with ease, providing a powerful moment.

Nerd Face and Smize
George Abud and Laura Schein
One imagines that when the show is over Laura Schein must get physical therapy on her cheeks and jaw. She plays 😊 to perfection, and never loses her smile, even when she reveals an underlying sadness, or heartbreaking anger when she finds out she's been part of a love triangle with her cheating boyfriend 😎 (all teeth and sex appeal as played by Jacob Dickey) and her best friend 😘 (delightfully dim as played by Heather Makalani). Schein is a star on the rise - be it on stage or on the page.

In what amounts to a cameo, theater favorite Ann Harada is a scream as 💩. Clearly having a ball, she is the master of underplaying for laughs in her big act two number, "Pile of Poo." (❤ her costume!) Two other current masters of physical musical comedy are giving it 200% and the audience laps it up like a cat with cream. Lesli Margherita is all legs and laughs as 👸, particularly riotous in "Princess is a Bitch," a song that is exactly what you imagine. Josh Lamon is just as funny as the childlike 🤴. Both of these masters now how to play everything just over the top, knowing when to stop and never wearing out their welcome.  They have a gift and know just how to use it.

Princess Lesli Margherita
But is is two actors who play against their previous types of roles that steal the show. Maybe it is because I was so shocked at their departure that I loved what they did, but in retrospect, it is simply because they are so great at their craft. Shame on me. I'm talking of course of the wondrously funny and wickedly earnest George Abud as 🤓, and the deliciously evil and self-absorbed Lucas Steele as 💀. They team up to wreak havoc on Emojiland with a - gasp! - virus, and along the way deliver a pair of tour de force numbers of operatic proportions: "Cross My Bones" and "Start Over." The scenery in New York hasn't seen as much chewing in all the right ways in years.

It is smart, sassy and endlessly fun. And it really keeps your attention - didn't see a single audience member sneaking a look at their cell phone! Trust me. You'll enjoy your trip to Emojiland!

📸: J. Kyler, J. Daniel


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