“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.
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.
Tickets Through March 8 at The Duke on 42nd Street, Manhattan; dukeon42.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.