‘Emojiland’ and a Graceful Elegy at New York Musical Festival

NEW YORK — “Emojiland” takes place inside a smartphone, in a digital miniworld peopled with emojis, and its hero looks about the way you’d think: like an undiluted dweeb — though, since this is a pop musical, the chartreuse frames on his glasses are kind of fabulous.

Posted Updated

Laura Collins-Hughes
, New York Times

NEW YORK — “Emojiland” takes place inside a smartphone, in a digital miniworld peopled with emojis, and its hero looks about the way you’d think: like an undiluted dweeb — though, since this is a pop musical, the chartreuse frames on his glasses are kind of fabulous.

“My name’s Nerd Face,” he says, and with a jolt of laughter from the audience, our hero has arrived. A newcomer to Emojiland, Nerd Face was installed with the latest update. And the moment he spies Smize — that’s short for Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes, and she’s not as happy as she seems — the show fizzes with rom-com effervescence.

Of the three full productions at the center of the New York Musical Festival this past week, “Emojiland,” which was closing Sunday at the Acorn Theater at Theater Row, is the most charmingly silly fun. It is also, surprisingly yet subtly enough, the most politically resonant. (The festival continues through Aug. 5, with six more full productions to come.)

With book, music and lyrics by the married team of Keith Harrison, who makes a darling Nerd Face, and Laura Nicole Harrison, who is a winning Smize, it’s about a society that builds a wall to keep newcomers out, only to discover that the menace to its survival already lurks within.

The wall is a firewall, actually, its construction ordered by the bossy, baby-voiced Princess (the Olivier Award-winning Lesli Margherita, a daffy blast to watch), who’s been feeling threatened since the update abruptly added a Prince (Josh Lamon, ditto) to the realm. They fear that future updates could further dilute their power.

Directed by Thomas Caruso against a backdrop of clever projections (by Lisa Renkel), “Emojiland” takes too long in the windup, introducing us to its world. And while the costumes (by Sarah Zinn) and makeup (by Chloe Fox) add to the show’s frivolity, the looks of the many characters in this cast of 12 aren’t always distinctive enough to communicate which familiar emojis they are.

There’s no trouble, however, picking Pile of Poo out of the crowd. Played with panache by Jessie Alagna, she gets a nice solo, too — in the bathroom.

The Police Officer (Angela Wildflower) and Construction Worker (Megan Kane) have an important storyline, and though it may be a shade too developed for the overall balance of the show, it lets the authors make a case for integrity as a basic social value. “I know what I stand for,” the Construction Worker sings, resisting the wall.

Even when things get dark in Emojiland, some of its people stay brave — and, when doom seems imminent, they fight to reset what’s gone tragically wrong. From an energetic little musical, that’s a lesson for our time.

“If Sand Were Stone,” which closed Sunday at the Acorn Theater, was the week’s other strong offering, 180 degrees different in tone. With book and lyrics by Carly Brooke Feinman and music by Cassie Willson, it’s a show whose subject — a middle-aged woman’s fast unraveling from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease — risks turning off potential audience members.

But as staged by Tyler Thomas, with spare yet essential choreography by Nora Thompson, part of this musical’s triumph is its sensitivity and grace. Starring the Canadian actress Trish Lindström as Billie, a college professor whose mind is slipping, this is a quiet elegy that expresses its yearning in gorgeous strings: bass, guitar, cello and violin. (The music director, Ilana Atkins, plays keyboard.) In Lindström’s beautifully understated performance, Billie’s illness is never something we need to look away from.

This is a portrait of a family, really: Billie; her husband, Marvin (Jonathan Christopher), also a professor; and their Ivy League undergraduate daughter, Margaux (a terrific Alexis Floyd, and please let’s see more of her). From the outside, they’re still picture-perfect when Billie gets sick; from the inside, the wear is already showing. For one thing, Marvin is sleeping with Tracy (Tracy McDowell), a younger poet who’s been assisting Billie with a book.

It’s a smart curve ball to throw, but Feinman’s admirable desire to flesh out Tracy, making her more than a cardboard villain, knocks the show off-kilter. Marvin, meanwhile, is sometimes drawn clumsily or too sparely, particularly in dialogue scenes.

Projections (by Jess Medenbach) elegantly convey the fog and crumble of Billie’s mind, as does a four-person chorus of spirits that surrounds her. In a flashback to the time when Billie and Marvin first swooned for each other, and in a gorgeous mother-daughter scene, we get a glimpse of the warm, sun-dappled life that these people thought they would share. As much as the show mourns for Billie, it mourns that lost promise as well.

“What’s Your Wish?,” which closed Saturday, was the third festival show this past week, and the most muddled of the bunch. With a book by the troupe Thicket & Thistle, and music and lyrics by company members Kyle Acheson, Sam De Roest and Corley Pillsbury, it’s a warmhearted comic fantasy about two teenage boys (Acheson and De Roest) who get sucked into a storybook world, where an evil Enchantress (Juliana Wheeler) plans to kill them for their virgin blood.

Some of the music is lovely, and all of it is performed by the five-person cast. It’s very well intentioned, though the creators shoot far wide of their target of making a show that children and adults can enjoy on different levels. The story is as cluttered as the stage, and under Jonathan Eric Foster’s directionan aesthetic that might have come across as endearingly handmade seems messy instead.

More Information

New York Musical Festival

Through Aug. 5 at the Acorn Theater at Theater Row and The Green Room 42, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, nymf.org.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.