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BWW Album Review: EMOJILAND Is More Than Meets the Smize


BWW Album Review: EMOJILAND Is More Than Meets the Smize

Going into a show titled Emojiland, you're probably not expecting allegories about immigration, politics, mental illness, and the ups and downs of the human condition. Surprise! Keith Harrison and Laura Schein have created a musical that's remarkably straightforward and thoughtful underneath its gimmicky, colorful exterior. The score is alternately silly and insightful, making it a genuinely delightful listening experience.

The first section of the score is devoted to introducing us to our cast of characters: a group of emojis living inside a phone. Early on, it sounds like our protagonist might be "Smize," played by Schein, who gets the early-on ballad "Sad on the Inside." I never thought I'd be saying "I relate to a smiley face emoji who's talking about a disconnect between societal expectations and her inner life, but - here we are. Instead of keeping her as the focus, though, we soon shift over to our real protagonist, "Nerd Face," played with delicious, over-eager geekiness and a pitch-perfect comedic voice by George Abud (an underrated favorite from The Band's Visit). He's introduced to us through "Zeroes and Ones," an eloquent paean to the beauty of binary code that deliberately juxtaposes the coldness of the code with deeply felt language.

Of course, not everyone we meet in Emojiland is a good guy. There's also "Princess," Lesli Margherita's preening, proud bad girl, who gets her moment in the spotlight with the gleeful anthem to spoiled power in "Princess Is a B*tch." And then there's the morbid, angsty, melodramatic Skull and his signature song "Cross My Bones," who could only possibly be played by Lucas Steele, master of dissonant melodies, preening baddies, and serious high notes. A show is only as good as its antagonists, and with these, (plus a hilariously fratty Josh Lamon as "Prince,") Emojiland has everything it needs.

The only complaint? Early on, the plot is fairly thin, at least in the musical elements. We get a sense of plenty of character beats, but not as much plot - and, as mentioned before, there's a bit of a protagonist bait-and-switch. But by the time we get to "Stand For," which pits Construction Worker (Natalie Weiss) against her true love Police Officer (Felicia Boswell) and the rest of Emojiland, there's a straightforward, classic plot to follow: a new software update has introduced new emojis, and to avoid future disruptions, the emojis are building a firewall to keep out future updates. Yes, there are "build the wall" metaphors. It's somewhere between Les Mis's "One Day More" and Hadestown's "Why We Build the Wall," with a dash of absurdism thrown in for good measure, and somehow, bizarrely, it works.

That familiarity of plot (community bands together with unintended consequences) is largely what helps Emojiland's score stand out: it hits familiar beats with a quirky new sensibility and a willingness to laugh at itself. Plus, later in the soundtrack, as a virus begins to decimate the cast, there are some genuinely moving moments. The surprisingly moving "A Thousand More Words" combines a "grief song" with a cheesy metaphor about pictures and words that takes itself just seriously enough to really work. And the eleven o'clock number, "Anyway," is really a rather touching set of musings on how every decision we make affects ourselves and the world around us. When a song manages to convey plot, character, humor, and a reference to Descartes along with emoji puns, you know you've found something genuinely creative.

Emojiland certainly isn't reinventing the wheel, but it finds a sweet spot between parody, traditional musical structure, and just a dash of commentary on the modern world. The poppy feel of the score makes it enjoyable and hummable. While none of the songs stand out to the degree that they'll be stuck in your head for days on end, listening to the soundtrack is certainly an enjoyable way to pass an hour - you'll be smiling, if not "smizing."

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