“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, might be just the thing – the kind of sheer fun that sends you back into the world feeling a little more upbeat…This is a tonic of a musical, big-hearted and comforting.”

There’s a Rom-Com in Your Phone. With Music. (Critic’s Pick!) 🔗
Laura Collins-HughesNYTimes

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.

Set inside a smartphone (yes, I know; stay with me), Keith Harrison and Laura Schein’s “Emojiland” is part rom-com, part battle for the soul of a society whose every inhabitant is an emoji.

Ruled by the sparkly, pink-haired Princess (the daffily imperious Lesli Margherita), this is a place where the cool couple, Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes (just call her Smize) and Smiling Face With Sunglasses (he goes by Sunny), have been together since version 1.0. Then software update 5.0 adds new emojis, and Nerd Face hits the scene.

Directed by Thomas Caruso, “Emojiland” is a little slow to start. It floats along at first on the candy-colored cleverness of its design (set by David Goldstein, lighting by Jamie Roderick, projections by Lisa Renkel & Possible) and the pop pleasantness of its songs. (The music director is Lena Gabrielle.)

But with the arrival of Nerd Face, played with wonderfully sweet dorkiness by George Abud (“The Band’s Visit”), you can feel the air turn electric. There is a very good chance that you will be as instantly smitten with him as he is with Smize (Schein) in her polka-dotted fit-and-flare dress. (The delightful costumes are by Vanessa Leuck, who also designed the excellent makeup.)

Nerd Face, our bespectacled, argyle-vest-clad hero, has the geek’s perennial trouble fitting in. Shunned by Sunny (Jacob Dickey), who is the hotshot leader of the pack — and, no surprise, a jerk to Smize — the lonely Nerd Face starts hanging out with Skull (Lucas Steele, deathly pale in black leather and mesh, and oozing an almost Victorian dark charisma). Too naïve to be wary, and probably as entranced by his new pal as we are, Nerd Face believes Skull when he says he wants to delete himself, and cooks up a virus to help.

That virus will, alas, come to endanger all of Emojiland. It will be up to Nerd Face to save the realm.

That includes not only the Princess but the dimwitted Prince (a deliciously campy Josh Lamon), also added with the update. Just as shallow as the Princess, he’s like a 5-year-old, but very sexual. (“Trust fall!” he announces, collapsing onto Sunny.) The Princess, the alpha of the two and a hilariously vicious mimic, has an emotional age of about 7. And she can do the splits.

Not wanting their power weakened by future updates that could bring a queen or king, the rulers commission a firewall to keep all newcomers out. Little do they know that the emoji plotting to do harm is already on the inside, and he is not a recent import.

When the Construction Worker (an appealing Natalie Weiss) refuses to build the wall, vowing instead to “tear down what’s gotten rotten,” her beloved romantic partner, the Police Officer (Felicia Boswell, ditto), sides with the royals in the interest of security.

Thanks partly to across-the-board stellar casting, “Emojiland” has deepened since its developmental run two summers ago at the recently shuttered New York Musical Festival.

Ann Harada plays a familiar character in “Emojiland,” Pile of Poo.
Ann Harada plays a familiar character in “Emojiland,” Pile of Poo. Credit… Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In this new context, the scene where Pile of Poo (Ann Harada, in a game cameo) consoles a distraught Smize comes across as two-dimensional, relying on bathroom humor and the sight gag of Poo’s tiered dress and brown beehive. (Bobbie Zlotnick designed the terrific hair and wigs.) Poo looks great but deserves a better song and fewer awkward puns.

There is occasional trouble, too, with the orchestra overwhelming the vocals, including at the climax of Act 1. (Sound design is by Ken Goodwin.)

But these are nitpicks. This is a tonic of a musical, big-hearted and comforting.

In “Emojiland,” even world-threatening mistakes can sometimes be repaired by the very people who made them. And if you sense an allegory there, it might just cheer you up.

“Emojiland has a lot of heart. The themes it possesses are real and relatable, without taking itself too seriously. The cast oozes talent. And, the opening song, which is reprised in the finale, was stuck in my head for the duration of my train ride home, which I believe to be the mark of a good musical.”

‘Emojiland’ Maintains Relatable Themes Without Taking Itself Too Seriously 🔗
Stephanie WildBroadway World

With a title like “Emojiland” and an aesthetic that drips with millennial energy, I admit I wasn’t expecting much from the musical, which opened at the New York Musical Festival last week (on World Emoji Day, no less). What I was greeted with was two hours of fun, catchy songs, immeasurable talent and an existential (or, should I say, “textistential”) plot that made me think way more deeply than I had planned to.

Emojiland follows the fictional titular town that exists within all of our smart phones and its people, or rather, emojis. With characters like Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes (nicknamed Smize), Nerd Face, Sunny (best known to the audience as the smiley face with sunglasses), and yes, even Pile Of Poo, the clever musical had audiences chuckling at the recognizable faces they had previously only seen on the screens of their smartphones.

BWW Review: EMOJILAND at NYMF Maintains Relatable Themes Without Taking Itself Too Seriously
Keith Harrison (Nerd Face)
and Laura Nicole Harrison (Smize)
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel

We find Emojiland on the brink of a software update, 5.0, bringing in new emojis of all shapes and sizes.

The town of Emojiland is run by the Princess, played by the effortlessly genius Lesli Margherita. From the moment she steps on stage, she steals the show, singing her first number “Princess Is A Bitch.”

The first of the new emojis we meet is Nerd Face, who immediately takes a liking to Smize, but she is in a long term relationship with Sunny (“since 1.0”).

Another new emoji is Prince, played by the flamboyant scene-stealer Josh Lamon. Prince threatens the Princess’ reign at first, before the two decide to join forces, out-belting and out-dancing each other in a partnership that just makes sense.

Nerd Face links up with Skull, who talks him into using his smarts to create a virus, intended only to kill Skull himself. However, Skull smashes the potion to the ground, following the dramatic act one finale number, releasing a virus into all of Emojiland.

Meanwhile, Princess talks Construction Worker into building a firewall to keep any further updates from occurring, and thus barring new emoji from the town and securing Princess and Prince’s reign. This is against the better judgement of “CoWo” but her girlfriend “PoPo” (or Police Officer) convinces her that the Princess’ decree is law, forcing her to build the wall.

The firewall can’t save them, however, the virus has already been unleashed, causing various emoji to freeze and crash. In a heartbreaking number, CoWo is infected by the virus, and PoPo watches her disappear before her eyes, singing about how she wishes she could have “1000 more words” with the one she loves.

BWW Review: EMOJILAND at NYMF Maintains Relatable Themes Without Taking Itself Too Seriously
Jordon Bolden (Skull)
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Nerd Face decides to be the hero and save the day, as well as get the girl he loves, Smize, who he saw having an affair with Kissy Face. What results is a truly existential scene where a phone screen is projected behind the set, showing the actual nerd face emoji traveling to the settings panel to force a factory reset. Meanwhile, Skull is trying to stop him on stage. A well-choreographed fight ensues, resulting in Nerd Face hitting the reset button and bringing back all of the emojis who were infected by the virus. And, he gets the girl.

Skull, played by Jordon Bolden, was a standout. His voice and presence commanded the stage, and he was believably the villain, giving me chills when he sang about wanting his world to end. Laura Nicole Harrison, who played Smize, had an infectious energy. She had me at her first solo number, which discusses how she’s sad on the inside but has to maintain her happy face. Too real.

Emojiland has a lot of heart. The themes it possesses are real and relatable, without taking itself too seriously. The cast oozes talent. And, the opening song, which is reprised in the finale, was stuck in my head for the duration of my train ride home, which I believe to be the mark of a good musical.

“Call me a Pile of Poo, but Emojiland might inspire the most exciting postshow conversation you’ve had in quite some time…the surprise of this year’s New York Musical Festival.”

‘Emojiland’ the Surprise of This Years New York Musical Festival 🔗
Hayley LevittTheaterMania

It’s not scientific law, but prospects are generally poor for a musical whose eleven o’clock number is delivered by a poop emoji (even when you have someone as belt-tacular as Jessie Alagna playing said Pile of Poo). The fringe benefit of such grim expectations is that Emojiland, directed by Thomas Caruso, breezily surpasses them in the surprise of this year’s New York Musical Festival. Husband-and-wife team Keith and Laura Nicole Harrison not only pair memorable melodies with thoughtful and clever lyrics, but they actually meet their subtitle — “A Texistential New Musical” — with more than just a few passing thoughts on how you can’t judge an emoji by its interface.

We certainly do hear those grievances from Smize (short for Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes, played by Laura Nicole Harrison), a girl who feels stuck in her cheerful demeanor despite her well of complex underlying emotions (she and her fellow emojis are dressed by Sarah Zinn in mercifully subtle homages to their iPhone illustrations). A world that roots itself in fixed identities, however, naturally becomes a world that fears otherness, and we see that fear come to a head when Prince and Princess (self-centered monarchs played by the perfect comic duo of Josh Lamon and Lesli Margherita) scare the residents of Emojiland into supporting the construction of a firewall to prevent future cell phone updates that will bring new and unknown emojis. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it’s a surprisingly apt one that the authors track all the way to the quarantine of the newest emojis upon suspicion of spreading a virus through Emojiland (you don’t expect an allusion to Japanese internment to make it into a musical comedy, but there you have it).

To supplement the political commentary, the Harrisons have gone philosophical with an overarching thought experiment that pits nihilists against existentialists. Philosophy (and science fiction) buffs have probably heard of the Simulation Hypothesis — the proposition that our entire universe, most likely, is actually a computer simulation. Seeing as our cell-phone-based characters are aware of their origin story, Emojiland skips the what-if and moves on to the what-then — which is by far the more interesting question. Skull (a powerfully voiced Jordon Bolden) is all-too-painfully aware of his artificial existence and decides he would rather have no life at all than a life absent of meaning. On the contrary, Nerd Face (played ever so endearingly by Keith Harrison), appreciates the beauty of his mathematical coding and asserts his own significance in his synthetic cosmos. Call me a Pile of Poo, but Emojiland might inspire the most exciting postshow conversation you’ve had in quite some time.

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. Directed with high energy, humor, and heart by Thomas Caruso.

Emojiland at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row 🔗
Deb MillerDC Metro - Theater Arts

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.

Keith Harrison and Laura Nicole Harrison. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.
Keith Harrison and Laura Nicole Harrison. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

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.

Jordon Bolden. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.
Jordon Bolden. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

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.

“Here’s the bottom line: Go see it, it’s totally hilarious! Kudos to Director Thomas Caruso…delivers in a big way.”

Clever Little Lies at Penguin Repertory Theatre 🔗
Peter DanishBroadway World

“Here’s the bottom line: Go see it, it’s totally hilarious!

Joe DiPietro, who gave us the evergreen “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change!” has another hit on his hands with “Clever Little Lies.” The play feels a little bit like an extended sit-com – only with better jokes. In fact, the play’s structure and pacing is completely evocative of several of Neil Simon‘s early hits, with an emphasis on “family values” and how complex relationships can be. It has an old-fashioned feeling and a somewhat superficial style that moves quickly from silliness to seriousness without a great deal of character development or real depth.

One caveat: there are quite a few “adult moments,” enough four-letter words to make a sailor blush (far more than necessary) and some brutally frank descriptions of various sexual acts. That said, the show is virtually non-stop laughs from start to finish.

As the title suggests, the play is about lying – specifically to your spouse – about infidelity. It’s a perennially ripe subject, but the play really doesn’t break any new ground, but the ground it does cover, it does very well.

BWW Review: CLEVER LITTLE LIES at Penguin Repertory Theatre
Jana Robbins, Richard Kline, Photo: Chris Yacopino

The play begins with Billy losing a tennis match with his father, Bill – which brings about a locker room confession to his father, that he’s in love with his 23-year-old personal trainer at the gym. His father is distraught and asks how this is possible given Billy’s seemingly happy marriage to a beautiful wife and a brand-new baby. Billy’s rationale won’t win him many fans in the audience and makes him a really unsympathetic character. He begs his father not to tell his mother (one wonders why he told him in the first place?) but no one in the house believes for a second that that’s going to happen. “Your mother has a way of extracting things from me.” Says Bill in anticipation of spilling the beans. Richard Kline, a long-time Penguin favorite and TV’s Larry from the sitcom “Three’s Company” was pitch perfect as Bill, the long-suffering husband and father. His facial expressions alone were absolutely priceless.

A special shout out here to the brilliant sets by James J. Fenton, which actually got a huge ovation when the lockerroom morphed into the elegant living room of Bill and Alice’s home. Great theater!

Given the preamble, when we meet Alice, Billy’s Mom, (played to the hilt by Jana Robbins) it comes as no surprise exactly what kind of personality she is going to have. To Mr. DiPietro’s credit, despite the obviousness of the characters and many of the situations, he still manages to get a ton of laughs out of each. Kudos to Director Thomas Caruso for taking a fairly static story and keeping the pace lively and the movement honest and not gratuitous.

BWW Review: CLEVER LITTLE LIES at Penguin Repertory Theatre
Jordan Sobel, Bridget Gabbe, Photo: Chris Yacopino

Jordan Sobel has the difficult job of playing Billy, who continues not to show a lot of redeemable qualities when he and wife Jane visit his parents’ house for dinner – baby in tow. Dinner never materializes – only cheesecake, and a chat about “this and that.” The comedic tension runs high as Alice begins interrogating Jane, played by Bridget Gabbe, who does a fine job despite being hobbled by the character’s lack of development. In addition, Jane’s appearance felt a bit out of kilter. Billy is leaving her for a 23-year-old hottie at the gym, but she is quite the hottie herself – complete with gorgeously blown out hair and perfect highlights – not some doughty, housefrau, with dark circle under her eyes from taking care of a new-born, as the playwright seemed to imply. Maybe a ponytail at least?

Alice is a complete chatterbox, whining incessantly about how her bookstore has devolved into a soft-core pornography shop, with customers more interested in drinking from Charles Dicken’s coffee mugs rather than reading his books. Ms. Robbins and Mr. Kline give a master class in comedic timing and delivery in their scenes together.

Just as the whole family is about to fall apart she begins telling a story of her own. No one -onstage or in the audience – is quite sure if she’s telling the truth or just making it up to save the day. (no spoilers here!)

The play never really digs deep but it does deliver in a big way. “Clever Little Lies” is chuck-full of clever little lines – and a cast that knows what to do with them!”

“The Penguin’s 41st season continues its deserved success with Clever Little Lies. Director Caruso (he directed one of my favorite shows, Southern Comfort, at the Public Theater) cleverly uses his very premises, the Penguin Barn Theatre in which we are comfortably ensconced, turning a needed set change into a suspense moment.”

“The Penguin’s 41st season continues its deserved success with Clever Little Lies.” 🔗
Eugene PaulTheater Scene

“If you can possibly wiggle some bare ass into  a comfort food comedy, you should do it and this, director Thomas Caruso accomplishes with ease as Bill Sr. (savvy Richard Kline) and Billy,(super Jordan Sobel) his son dress in the locker room  after a  rousing game of tennis which Dad won. Hmmm. Did he, indeed. The faithful Penguin audience appreciates every detail, as Bill junior reveals more and more:  he’s madly in love with his newly discovered soul mate, that knocks out gorgeous 23 year old trainer at their gym. But please don’t tell Mom, Pleeeze. Or Jane. Young Billy’s wife.  Especially. Especially, with their new baby, Bill Sr.’s only grandchild.

Bill, Sr., who can never keep anything from his wife, new grandma, Alice, Billy’s mother. wrangler extraordinary, is already up the creek. Already things are getting funny not so funny. But Tony winner playwright Joe Di Pietro is in his element, full of clever little lies to keep the fun bubbling until  — until  things edge into a clever big lie which is  funny until it is not.

At this point, director Caruso (he directed one of my favorite shows, Southern Comfort, at the Public Theater) cleverly uses his very premises, the Penguin Barn Theatre in which we are comfortably ensconced, turning a needed set change into a suspense moment, because we know that Bill won’t be able to keep a damn thing from Alice and we’re shifting to his living room, (incidentally, one of the handsomest settings the Penguin has ever turned out, it’s by designer James J. Fenton). And there’s Alice (wonderful Jana Robbins) who positively sparkles with one liners about her book store and what’s selling and what’s not.

 All too soon – or not soon enough?–she zooms in on Bill’s tiny discomforts, that Bill is holding something back. It’s like blood in the water to a shark. Bill’s valiant attempts at keeping his vow of silence to his son are sheer fodder for Alice’s gambits at prying. She immediately enforces a family meeting over cheese cake and coffee to talk about this and that. And director Caruso does it again: Penguin crew’s not instantaneous implementation of a set change, Billy and Jane (marvelous Bridget Gabbe) and the baby in their car on the way to Mom’s and Dad’s becomes another suspenseful teaser instead of a dead wait.

 Things are getting shaggier. Appropriately inappropriate words are being flung including DiPietro’s sardonically funny disparagement of one term as homophobic. And right in front of the baby? All the while, Bill trying not to tell what Billy told him?  And Billy trying not to tell Jane about anything? And his cell phone in constant importuning by Jasmine, the delicious trainer? And relentless Alice constantly wangling and prying? In order to save the day and their family? By telling a whopper and asking really uncomfortable Bill to just play along and she’ll solve everything? So that when the word, “Affair” pops up and Jane rears up, Alice confesses that it’s her affair.

And proceeds to elaborate an affair, the dimensions of which are amazingly parallel to that of Billy’s, which she has solved in her own life in her own way, Bill reluctantly noodged to go along with the story.

Director Caruso mounts a doozy of a scene in which Billy’s awkwardly problematic cell phone hurtles from hand to hand as it is snatched by Mom, from Mom to Dad, from Dad to Jane, from Jane to Billy with all its presumed incriminating tales to tell, only to be topped by Billy remembering that when he was five years old he met the man his Mom is telling them all about as her former lover.  This is not a clever little lie. It’s Mom Alice’s big lie to what she considers as saving her family.  But – is it? And what does that do to the husband who has loved her all these years?

David Kaley has dressed – and undressed – his company deftly.  Lighting designer Ed McCarthy gets full marks. The Penguin’s 41st season continues its deserved success.”

“Syncopation, a feel good show is adorned with fun and laughter…brilliant…sharp wit…cleverly directed by Thomas Caruso.”

“Penguin Rep Theatre Presents Allan Knee’s ‘Syncopation'” 🔗
Georgina CasazzaRockland County Times

“Set in 1911 New York City, Syncopationtells the story of Anna, a young Italian garment worker who secretly wants more out of her life, and Henry, a middle-aged Jewish butcher, who dreams bigger than he deems possible. This unlikely couple are teemed with poverty and possibility as they take dance lessons in a dusty sixth-floor walkup.

The two-man show is cleverly directed by Thomas Caruso, associate director of the Broadway musical Groundhog Day, and choreographed by Ryan Kasprzak, a Chita Rivera Award nominee for Bandstand.

Syncopation, a feel good show is adorned with fun and laughter by the actor duo. Lauren Annunziata, who plays Anna, is brilliant in her delivery of a sharp wit New York Italian who is cautious but curious. Annunziata is making her Penguin Rep debut with recent credits including I Know What You Are at Ensemble Studio Theatre, Perry Street at Labyrinth Theater, Hotel California at NY New Theater Festival, and First Immigrant at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Annunziata is paired onstage seemlesly with Josh Powell, who plays Henry. Powell brings a brightness to a stage that you don’t see often. The passion he brings to Henry is overflowing, and together the two carry the entire show on their backs. Powell joins Syncopation straight from the New York premiere of the new musical The Fourth Messenger. Recent credits also include The Fantasticks at Pittsburgh Public Theater and My Way at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Henry dreams of becoming a famous ballroom dancer, and even with no formal training he rents a small, dingy room that is exactly 108 steps up from the bottom. He takes out an ad in the local newspaper looking for the perfect dance partner to practice with – someone worthy of dancing for royalty. Anna, a recently engaged seamstress, sees the ad and thinks that it is crazy, yet something draws her to that sixth-floor walk up.

Anna and Henry are by no means the perfect team, but they are incredibly drawn to each other. Through shenangigans and heartbreak the audience is shown that you should never settle for what you have in life, and always reach for what you deserve.

The small, once abandonded hay barn located in Stony Point has grown from a summer theatre to one of the Hudson Valley’s most influential nonprofit cultural institutions in New York City and beyond. Penguin Rep’s founder and artistic director, Joe Brancato, had a vision and has sucessfully brought theatergoers in over the past 40 years.”

“Director Thomas Caruso wisely capitalizes on the talents of the ensemble, who show off Billy Griffin’s enjoyable choreography with ease…the show’s imaginative and hilarious spirit leaves audiences giggling in almost every scene…this lighthearted look at a charming A-lister’s rise to fame is devilish fun.”

“Imaginative and Hilarious ‘Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil'” 🔗
Grace EbachTheaterMania

“How the hell did he win an Oscar?” That’s the question that Emilie Landmann’s musical, Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil: An American Myth, attempts to answer. Her response, in the form of an amusing Faustian comedy, proves an entertaining addition to this year’s New York Musical Festival. While Landmann’s book and Jonathan Quesenberry’s score could use some tightening, the show’s imaginative and hilarious spirit leaves audiences giggling in almost every scene.

The musical opens with a sullen Matthew McConaughey (Wayne Wilcox) lamenting about his lackluster film career to his devoted agent/friend/dog-walker Penny (Jennifer Blood). They agree to work together on a project that will finally earn McConaughey what both he and rival Leo DiCaprio desperately want: an Academy Award. Enter Mephistopheles (Lesli Margherita), Satan’s demonic press agent, who arrives with a tempting offer: Sign a contract to star in “Texas Buyers Club” and win the Oscar he’s always dreamed of. The catch? Penny can’t read the fine print. Chaos ensues as Matthew struggles to maintain his friendship with fellow pothead Woody Harrelson (Max Crumm) and his loyalty to Penny, whose mounting frustration thrusts her into her own potentially hellish endeavor. In the end, all three must come together to save Matthew’s soul.

An impressive list of Broadway veterans stars in the production, including Wayne Wilcox, Jennifer Blood, Max Crumm, and Lesli Margherita. Wilcox entertainingly portrays a whiny yet ever-likable McConaughey. Blood and Crumm both deliver superb vocal performances. It is Margherita, though, who absolutely shines as Mephistopheles. Even if she utters just a few words in a scene, she leaves the audience howling. Director Thomas Caruso wisely capitalizes on the talents of the ensemble, who show off Billy Griffin’s enjoyable choreography with ease. Ensemble member Riza Takahashi delivers a humorously catty Leo DiCaprio, and Nicole Vande Zande and Cameisha Cotton captivate with some stunning vocal riffs.

The musical’s book, music, and lyrics could benefit from some editing. Although the opening numbers “Alright, Alright, Alright” and “I Could Win an Oscar” sparkle, others like “McConaissance” and “You Do You” are too long and not entirely satisfying. The book features fantastic referential humor à la Something Rotten!, yet some of the jokes don’t land. But in the end, this lighthearted look at a charming A-lister’s rise to fame is devilish fun.”

“Expert direction from Thomas Caruso and knowing dynamic choreography by Billy Griffin. This witty, knowing, hysterical musical deserves a longer life past the New York Musical Festival.”

“Witty Satire ‘Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil'” 🔗
Adam CohenTheater Pizzazz

“Before the show, Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil, you face the underbelly of Hollywood – literally with James Fenton’s back of the famed Hollywood sign – rusted and moldy.  This sets the scene perfectly.  If you’ve ever wondered how Matthew McConaughey got his start – destined to be an armadillo farmer in Texas – and won an Academy Award – Emilie Landmann (book), Jonathan Quesenberry (Music) and Carrie Morgan (Lyrics) hysterically answer that and more questions for us.  With as high a joke ratio as Book of Mormon – this fun show hits all its marks with hysterical lyrics and book that demand repeat viewing given the potential to miss due to audience laugher.

This witty satire posits that McConaughey (Wayne Wilcox) sells his soul so he can win an Oscar to Mephistopheles (Lesli Margherita) despite the protests of his grade school friend/agent Penny (Jennifer Blood) and fellow actor/best friend Woody (Max Crumm).  After years of lax romantic comedies (most of which are referenced) and being bumped from talk shows for an animal act, the bongo playing, sandal wearing, slacker actor years for serious roles and he’s got just the idea playing a Nazi hating orphan rescuer.  The devil has other ideas and scripts – including the Texas Buyer’s Club.

Mining a rich vein for satire is a tough road but thanks to expert performances from Wilcox, Margherita, Blood, Crumm, and the pert, beautifully harmonic chorus – this show scores.  The songs cleverly throw in every aspect of McConaughey’s career including his car ads, stoner demeanor, and prior film work.  Margherita has a beautiful powerful singing voice, tremendous facials, and vamps hysterically swiping on a phone.  Crumm and Blood are great best friends seeking legitimacy on their own terms without selling their souls.  Wilcox captures McConaughey’s fierce laconic beat poet/stoner vibe. Cameisha Cotton, Koh Mochizuki, Frankie Shin, Nicole Vande Zande, and Betty Weinberger, Riza Takahashi, round out the cast as the ensemble of vitriolic stars, devilish gospel choir, vengeful “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” and halluncinations in “Weed Ballet.”  Takahashi doubles as McConaughey competitor Leo.  They are buoyed by expert direction from Thomas Caruso and knowing dynamic choreography by Billy Griffin.

The lyrics and book reference every aspect of stoner Hollywood winking knowingly at McConaughey’s reputation and demeanor.  And the cast heartily sinks their teeth into the material ripping into hysterical lines along the lines of respecting the actor’s abs or his work and awkward usage of words (literature-ly).  For sheer laughs and fun, Matthew McConaughey Vs The Devil works.  Though like many Saturday Night Live sketches – towards the end there’s a bit a flab.  But the cast propels you through it – especially the dancing bong, bag of weed, and bongos. Daryl A. Stone’s sharp costumes are a great virtue.  Check your brain at the door, have fun.  This witty knowing, hysterical musical deserves a longer life past New York Musical Festival.”

“Directed with high energy and laugh-out-loud humor by Thomas Caruso…witty…wacky…entertaining…clever…fun…Under Caruso’s well-tempered direction and pacing, they bring the laughs quickly…”

“‘Matthew McConaughey Vs The Devil’ at the New York Musical Festival” 🔗
Deb MillerDC Metro - Theater Arts

“Deserving recipient of an Academy Award for Best Actor, or modern-day Faust who sold his soul to capture Hollywood’s biggest honor? Emilie Landmann (book), Carrie Morgan (book and lyrics), and Jonathan Quesenberry (music and lyrics) make a zany case for the latter, in Matthew McConaughey Vs The Devil. The funny new work by the Portland, Oregon-based trio – presented by Everything Rhymes with Blorange in a full-stage premiere at this summer’s New York Musical Festival (NYMF) – is a post-modern parody of the classic German legend and the sometimes surprising nature of success and celebrity that asks the burning question, “How the hell did this guy win an Oscar?”

Directed with high energy and laugh-out-loud humor by Thomas Caruso, the show skewers everything from the inner workings of the Hollywood star system to the religious beliefs on which the tale of Faust is based, in a go-back story that recounts the origins of the eponymous actor (played by Wayne Wilcox), lampoons his reputation as a bongo-playing pot-smoker typecast in mediocre rom-coms, and wildly re-imagines the circumstances that led to the “McConaissance” – his meteoric rise from “that stripper movie” of 2012, to Oscar night 2015. In his desire to “be taken seriously as an actor” and to gain the respect of Leo (Riza Takahashi) and the A-list circle of detractors who consider him “a fucking joke,” Matty sets his sights on winning the coveted award (“I Could Win an Oscar”), with a little help from his BFFs Woody (Max Crumm) and long-time agent Penny (Jennifer Blood), and a whole lot of help from Mephistopheles herself (the terrific Lesli Margherita), in a high-stakes deal with the devil that could lead him straight to hell.

Wayne Wilcox and Max Crumm. Photo by Michael Kushner.

The script is loaded with witty pop-culture references (it helps if you’re familiar with the careers of McConaughey and friends, including his oft-repeated quote “Alright, Alright, Alright,” his ad campaign for the Lincoln Motor Company alluded to in the number “Lincoln Guy,” his dedication to animal rescue, and Woody’s bartending to a few instantly recognizable notes from the theme song of his Emmy Award-winning sit-com) and wacky characterizations that are delivered with comedic control by the cast. Under Caruso’s well-tempered direction and pacing, they bring the laughs quickly, without resorting to over-the-top histrionics or extended milking.

Wilcox transitions from the innate bohemian style and cluelessness of the protagonist – who all too gullibly signs a contract with the devil without first reading it – to a self-important star who all too easily dismisses his old friends, wears shoes (much to Woody’s dismay), and neglects to acknowledge anyone’s help in his red-carpet interview, then reverts back to the same old zoned-out stoner and middling talent (in a subtle and side-splitting scene of bad acting, which is not easy for a good actor to do!), after they convince him to be himself again (“You Do You”) to save his soul. Crumm brings Woody’s love of pot, nerdy need for emotional attachments, and ultimate altruism in the face of repeated rejection to his performance, and Blood shifts from a loyal rep to a “bitch-in-charge” and “boss-ass agent” while performing a riotous rap about “The Finer Things” with Mephistopheles and her female minions.

Wayne Wilcox, Lesli Margherita, and ensemble. Photo by Michael Kushner.
Margherita, who took home last year’s NYMF award for Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role (and should garner another nomination this season), steals the show as Satan’s agent on earth (and send-up of all pushy agents in the entertainment industry), with her powerhouse vocals, seductive moves, tough-talking attitude, and priceless facial expressions, each timed to perfection. Cameisha Cotton, Koh Mochizuki, Frankie Shin, Nicole Vande Zande, and Betty Weinberger, along with Takahashi, round out the cast as the ensemble of vitriolic stars, devilish gospel choir, vengeful “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” and performers in a drug-induced “Weed Ballet.” Billy Griffin provides the dynamic choreography and Kristin Stowell the musical direction (in addition to conducting the live five-piece band and performing on keyboard) for the amusing array of songs and dances. While not all of the individual vocals hit the mark, the group numbers are generally harmonious and entertaining.

A clever set design by James Fenton places us behind-the-scenes of the famous Hollywood sign, with the letters seen from behind. A simple rectangular box easily converts with the flip of a cloth from the bar of the Oscar after-party (one of the show’s funniest segments, featuring Mephistopheles becoming increasingly intoxicated) to the high altar of the church in which McConaughey prays for the salvation of his soul (while singing through “The Five Stages of Grief”). Zach Blane’s lighting design employs flashlights for scenes on the dark side and a flaming red backdrop for the inferno of hell, and costumes by Daryl Stone visually define the personalities of the celebrities (in trendy black attire), demons (in hot red), and stoners (in unkempt everyday streetwear).

Although the Faustian story of Matthew McConaughey Vs The Devil pits friendship, love, and loyalty against greed, control, and unkindness, in the end it is less a morality play and more a lively hour-and-a-half of contemporary musical satire that keeps the audience laughing and nodding at the familiar behavior. It’s a lot of fun.”

“A beautiful and heartfelt show…bring the family.”

“‘Southern Comfort’ is the Public’s Latest Musical Triumph.” 🔗
Jeremy GerardDeadline

Southern Comfort is based on Kate Davis’s remarkable 2001 documentary of the same name. It followed the final year in the life of Robert Eads, a female-to-male transgender man who found love with his “chosen family” of other transgender folks in rural Georgia even has hospital after hospital refused to treat his ovarian cancer until it was too late.

The Public’s Anspacher Theater, with its steeply raked audience that focuses the audience up close and personal on the action unfolding on the stage, is the perfect setting for this beautiful and heartfelt show, which has been in the works for several years. Annette O’Toole (The Kennedys Of Massachusetts, Smallville), with a Colonel Sanders goatee and halting gait, plays Eads with lingering, unself-conscious affection and grace, and she is matched in those qualities by the rest of the cast, notably Jeffrey Kuhn as Jackson, the outcast former girl whom Robert has raised as his own son, and Jeff McCarthy as Lola, Robert’s strapping, still closeted lover.  The story is given added depth and power by Jackson’s decision to undergo phalloplasty despite Robert’s angry opposition.

The book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis are of a piece with the story and include several gems. They songs are played by a bluegrass band whose members also take on roles. James Fenton’s setting is lovely, anchored by the dominating trunk and metallic branches of what we soon realize is Robert’s family tree. It’s a beautiful show; bring the family.”