For those who may not have been familiar with the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) before the recent announcement of its sudden demise due to a lack of funding, the well-meaning but amateurish, cheesy and forgettable musical comedy Emojiland is a pretty accurate representation of the kind of third-rate work that it has been presenting in recent years.
While NYMF absolutely deserves recognition for having provided a hosting platform for hundreds of new musicals to play New York over a 16-year period, its most noteworthy musicals were all from its first few seasons, including [title of show], Next to Normal (then titled Feeling Electric) and – to a lesser extent – Yank!, Chaplin and Altar Boyz. For whatever reasons, established writers and directors began to steer clear of NYMF, and the quality of the musicals at NYMF deteriorated to the point where there was little difference between those at NYMF and the Fringe Festival (which is now trying to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant).
Like The Other Josh Cohen and Desperate Measures, both NYMF shows that recently received Off-Broadway productions, Emojiland (which played NYMF in 2018) has graduated to a limited-run, commercial Off-Broadway production at the Duke on 42nd Street. The cast contains some familiar and credible Broadway names, including Lesli Margherita (Matilda), Ann Harada (Avenue Q), Josh Lamon (The Prom), Lucas Steele (Great Comet), Max Crumm (Grease) and Natalie Weiss (web series “Breaking Down the Riffs”).
I should confess that I had to remind myself exactly what an emoji (i.e. an expressive graphic/icon such as a happy or sad face) was before attending. In Emojiland, the emojis who inhabit a cellphone kingdom (princess, construction worker, police officer, pile of poo) are shaken up by an upgrade that leads to the arrival of new emojis (nerd, prince) and then a virus (spread by a skull). In reaction – and in a nod to current events – the community decides to build a wall – technically speaking, a firewall – to prevent outsiders from getting in, followed by placing newly arrived citizens in a dungeon/detention center. But these political touches aside, Emojiland is essentially a slight fairy tale/romantic comedy (with couples such as prince and princess, construction worker and police officer, and nerd face and sexy smile face).
Perhaps for legal reasons, the show’s website makes a point of noting that Emojiland has nothing to do with The Emoji Movie, a 2017 computer-animated comedy for kids. While I have no interest in seeing The Emoji Movie, I suspect it works better in an animated formation in which the characters physically resemble emojis – as opposed to having actors wear garish costumes and give cartoonish performances. Towards the show’s climax, the actors are briefly replaced by digital emoji graphics projected onto a screen.
The electronic-tinged score (by Keith Harrison and cast member Laura Schein) contains little of value, and the book (also credited to Harrison and Schein) is cute in how the emojis interact with each other but cumbersome in its attempt to build up a storyline. Given that emojis are representations of a single emotion, the actors are stuck giving performances that are one-dimensional and boring.
Emojiland is certainly not the finest work to come out of NYMF, but it is representative of the kind of silly, gimmick-based, Urinetown-influenced shows that festivals like NYMF and Fringe so commonly produce. And with that in mind, Emojiland is a fitting way to remember the virtues and shortcomings of NYMF.