There is only so much I can be critical of a show where Lesli Margherita slides down a pole and then screams for her backup dancers, where Tony nominee Lucas Steele’s villain turn is such a thick, meaty slice of ham that you’re not sure if he’s deliberately overdoing it, or just doesn’t realize he’s in a comedy, or where George Abud brings a surprising, slightly unsettling degree of sex appeal to the role of Nerd Face. (As in 🤓, that one.) As a critic, I can only stay so rational when theater favorite Ann Harada is making a “Special Appearance” as Pile of Poo. To sing a song called “Pile of Poo,” about staying strong when life hands you a pile of poo. Its chorus goes, in part: “Poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo.”
I recognize Emojiland does have issues. Its central romance is one. The show focuses on Nerd Face and Smiling Eyes (Laura Schein, 😊), two Emojis who find love while trying to save their world from the evil Skull (Steele, 💀), who is determined to destroy Emojiland. Emojiland is an emoji society that exists inside a phone. Like many a bland romantic lead pairing, Nerd Face and Smiling Eyes are the least engaging part of their story. Abud often makes up for it with his endearing presence and incredible vocals. No question, the man is a star. Schein is mostly bland, but gets tons of stage time, perhaps because she co-wrote the show (with Keith Harrison).
It’s fine to have your boring straight protagonists. (Straight is still the default, even in emoji world.) But that is not why we’re here. The draw of Emojiland is an ensemble of Broadway stalwarts embracing a simple, insane assignment: exist fully on stage as this emoji. Lesli Margherita is Princess. That’s the character, just Princess. She sings a song called “Princess is a Bitch.” It’s great. Josh Lamon is Prince, flailing around as only Lamon can. Max Crumm has fun as Man In Business Suit Levitating, maintaining impressive balance on a hoverboard (tough for group numbers).
Then there’s Lucas Steele. It’s a truly bonkers performance, just bananas. Steele leaves insane dramatic pauses between each line, suggesting Skull is somewhere between psychosis and a nervous breakdown. With grave seriousness he is tackling the question: what would life be like, living as the emoji of death? Could existing only as an emblem of loss lead to anything but madness? Cursed in this way, Skull has lost all belief in the value of existence as an emoji – or so Steele seems to have concluded. It is a lot, and Steele goes wild on Harrison and Schein’s two Radiohead-inspired numbers for Skull, which make for show highlights.
The strange seriousness of Skull aside, Harrison and Schein’s book is strongest on silliness and existential humor. Such as when Nerd Face pauses, mid-finale, to ponder if an emoji life is even tangible enough to be considered worth saving. The book’s vague attempts at political commentary are less successful: Emojiland builds a “firewall” to keep out new emojis, etc. Thankfully they are so tossed off that they can basically be ignored.
Rather than making weird wall references, Harrison and Schein might instead have had more fun with queering and blurring gender binaries, à la Spongebob SquarePants: The Musical, given that we’re dealing with emojis here. No such luck, sadly. Yes, there is a lesbian emoji couple, but things go fairly tragically for them. No great breakthrough there.
Ultimately these are quibbles with a show this infectiously fun. They leave one’s mind the moment Harada arrives in her (actually stunning) Poo dress, and collects her Nobel Prize. Harada leads off a string of second act numbers which let each cast member hit insane high notes. It’s all capped off with an absurd finale that partly involves Nerd Face, in video form, scrolling slowly up an iPhone settings page, as video Skull makes languid pursuit. It’s completely ridiculous, and it made me giddy. Or, it made me 😄.