21 January 2018
He lives in a pineapple under the sea and now that pineapple has come to Broadway. The new Broadway musical SpongeBob SquarePants is perhaps the best musical that it could be given the fact that it is about a psychedelic world where a sponge, a squirrel and a starfish go on bizarre adventures under the sea. The show is, of course, inspired by the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series of the same name that launched in 1999.* While neither groundbreaking theatre nor thought-provoking fare, SpongeBob SquarePants is a delightfully colorful, bright-eyed spectacle of a musical that proves solid fun for younger audiences. However, if the show were not running on the Great White Way, its absence would not be notable. Unlike its animated show turned musical predecessor The Lion King, SpongeBob SquarePants lacks noteworthy imagination in either staging or score – it is an episode of SpongeBob on music-laced steroids that may leave some theatergoers with a faint whisper of “why” twitching in the back of their minds as they depart the Palace Theatre.
SpongeBob (portrayed with earnest gusto by the energetic Ethan Slater) opens on the underwater town of Bikini Bottom where SpongeBob goes about his daily routine of preparing to work at the Krusty Krab and greeting his faithful friends Patrick Star, (Danny Skinner) a Tommy Bahama-clothed starfish, and Sandy Cheeks (the always exceptional Lilli Cooper), a squirrel in a space suit (that lives under the sea for some reason because why not?). SpongeBob’s exuberance for life counters his co-worker’s, Squidward Q. Tentacles (a delightfully sassy Gavin Lee), pessimistic realism as he seeks a promotion at the restaurant where he works. Suddenly, the town begins to experience rumblings that throw Bikini Bottom into chaos when it is discovered that the local volcano will soon erupt, destroying everything that SpongeBob and his friends hold dear. Facing their own insecurities and despite being reminded constantly of how unremarkable and/or unwelcome they are in Bikini Bottom, the trio discovers that they each possess singular qualities that, when combined, can overcome any obstacle (even a villainous minuscule plankton and his robotic wife**).
SpongeBob ticks all of the requisite boxes for a children’s musical. Numerous show-stopping ensemble numbers? Check. Cheesy overacting? Check. Simple plot device that teaches self-love and mutual respect? Check. The show is a bright, boisterous, psychedelic tromp through absurdity, and, although overwhelming at times, the combination generally proves enjoyable, if nonsensical. Although the story focuses on SpongeBob’s wide-eyed optimism, Patrick’s self-doubt and Sandy Cheek’s ostracization as an outsider (yes, SpongeBob includes social commentary on immigration – one of several reflections on the current political climate folded into the play for the adults in the audience), ancillary characters help elevate the show beyond simple platitudes. For example, Squidward can be a bit of a bully and he often tries to squash SpongeBob’s unbridled happiness, but he challenges the main characters while also growing independently through a side story involving his pursuit of a life-long dream. In a zealous show, Squidward is a much-needed anchor that keeps the ship from drifting away in a sea of hokey levity. Other characters never quite find a role within the plot, and seem to be included only to appease fans of the television show. For example, the evil Sheldon Plankton, while humorous, has questionable motivations and is an unnecessary roadblock to plot development (especially given that the impending volcano explosion seems a big enough challenge to overcome for one story). Also, Pearl Krabs is both unremarkable and indecipherable as a character. It was not until a friend explained to me that she, the daughter of a crab, was supposed to be a whale that I understood more of the show’s dialogue (to this SpongeBob novice, the writers appeared to be making fat jokes about a teenage girl, which is repulsive). Mercifully, the whirlwind pace of the production ensures that we never spend very long dwelling on such sub-plots.
The original songs in SpongeBob are often of the hypnotic pop variety – melodically luring but unremarkable. Rather than featuring one writer, the songs are composed by a variety of well know artists including Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco and Plain White T’s. The inevitable downside to this conglomeration of artists is that most of them seem to have been crafting their own personal show-stopping number, which leaves the audience (and no doubt the performers) fatigued from all of the Broadway belting. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography befits the exuberant energy and wacky charm of the show, and David Zinn’s costume and scenic design immerse the audience in the dizzying action of the show by inundating the senses. The flawless integration of Peter Nigrini’s exceptional projection design into the set design distinguishes SpongeBob from other recent stage productions that have utilized projections with far less success.
SpongeBob SquarePants could only work with a cast whole-heartedly dedicated to embodying the lunacy that is SpongeBob, and this ensemble delivers all of the vibrancy, silliness, spectacle and heart necessary to sell the show. Gavin Lee, always a consummate stage actor, once again impresses with his strong character acting and comedic capabilities as the scene-stealing Squidward, and his four-footed dance number is a showstopper reminiscent of the stage musicals of the 1940s and 50s. Lilli Cooper shines as the intelligent, powerful and determined squirrel Sandy Cheeks with her power-house vocals, commanding stage presence and delightful enthusiasm. Then there is SpongeBob. The creators were clearly seeking someone to embody the beloved character and they found just that in Ethan Slater. Slater’s bright-eyed ebullience, vocal and physical mannerisms and unbounded energy sell the story and all but transform Slater into the animated sponge that audiences love.
Ultimately, SpongeBob proves to be a good musical but falls shorts of achieving greatness. However, young audiences, especially those who enjoy the animated inspiration for this musical, will likely enjoy the plucky fun and joyful attack on the senses that is SpongeBob SquarePants.
*Full disclosure – I have never actually seen SpongeBob SquarePants, so this review is strictly regarding the merits of the musical.
**One of the more bizarre aspects of SpongeBob – apparently the villain is a small plankton that owns a rival restaurant, and the plankton is in love with a computer (that also lives under the sea).