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.