SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: THE BROADWAY MUSCIAL – Palace Theatre True to its cartoon origin and with no pretense other to entertain in that spirit, SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: THE BROADWAY MUSCIAL splashes onto Broadway spreading smiles and goodwill all over the Palace Theatre. Based on the hugely popular American children’s cable series on Nickelodeon, which began in 1999 and which spawned a $14 billion international merchandising phenomenon, this $20 million musical extravaganza pleases not only SpongeBob’s loyal fans but also audiences just looking for fun.
As each of the beloved characters is introduced in a book by Kyle Jarrow, which is predictable but charming and bizarre both, cheers erupt from the audience (much like those shouted out from adoring parents and siblings at the high school graduation of the youngest child). There’s even a scattering of SpongeBob wannabees in the audience attired in plaid pants, plain shirt and nerdy tie - just like SpongeBob! Costuming, conceived ingeniously and articulated with imagination and wit as is the scenic design by David Zinn, doesn’t disguise actors as in, say, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Character dominates, well beyond costume.
The plot of SPONGEBOB spins around an Armageddon premise. SpongeBob loves Bikini Bottom, where he and his sea-life friends live in their underwater world, and he likes his job for owner Eugene Krabs at the restaurant Krusty Krabs but wants to be more than a short-order cook. When Krabs’ daughter Pearl makes known she’s not interested in taking over her father’s business, SpongeBob sees his chance at management. But everyday life is threatened when an underwater volcano starts erupting. Anchorman Perch Perkins arrives to tell the town the volcano will erupt with 24 hours. The villainous Sheldon Plankton who owns the restaurant Chum Bucket, the failing competitor to Krusty Krabs, exploits the fears of Bikini Bottom residents. He convinces them to abandon their town and escape in a submarine where once aboard he will hypnotize them into finding delicious his inedible chum, thereby finally winning the restaurant war. Even The Mayor falls for the scheme. To raise money for the vessel, SpongeBob’s friend and lousy clarinetist, a four-legged Squidward Q. Tentacles, puts on a variety benefit show and secretly dreams he will become its musical star. SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick Star turns on SpongeBob when, smitten with becoming something other than second-fiddle, he succumbs to being the leader of cultist sardines. SpongeBob relies on Sandy Cheeks, his squirrel friend (the only mammal in Bikini Bottom) who’s a brainiac to invent a plan that will stop the volcano from erupting. SpongeBob and Sandy Cheeks set off to climb to the top of the volcano to apply Sandy's secret formula.
Sound silly? You bet. Sure, there are references to totalitarianism, inequality, political venality and media manipulation in the script, but SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS doesn’t ask audiences to take the bait (pun intended). Do SpongeBob and Sandy Cheeks make it to the top of the volcano? Do SpongeBob and Patrick resume their friendship? Does SpongeBob get his promotion at Krusty Krab? Dah all around, but for two and half-hours of dazzling staging and 20 musical numbers, SPONGE BOB SQAUREPANTS is all smiles. The musical score has many parents - 14 composers - but no matter. The unified production is the brainchild of director Tina Landau who, previously known for fringish Off-Broadway fare, more than deserves the explicit credit of “musical production conceived” by.
Songs, most original, come from the likes of songwriters Cyndi Lauper ((KINKY BOOTS) and Sara Bareilles (WAITRESS), as well as rock bands like Aerosmith, The Flaming Lips and Panic! At the Disco, and Grammy winners as diverse as Yolanda Adams, John Legend, T.J. and Lady Antebellum. Astonishingly, thanks to Landau’s unified artistic vision and deft musical direction by Julie McBride, diverse genres meld into a delightful pop-music pastiche. “Bikini Bottom Day”, a bouncy, bubble-gum tune that’s the opening ensemble number sets the musical’s overarching giddy tone. Broadway duet ballad gets featured im Plain White T’s “BFF (Best Friend Forever”) a charming ditty in Act 1 between SpongeBob and Patrick. Rap gets its due with “When the Going Gets Tough” with the evil Plankton and the Town (aka the emsemble). Gospel gets its turn in a rousing “Super Sea Star Savior” where Patrick assumes a secular ministry over a choir-robed pack of sardines. Really. And acid rocks-on in “Bikini Bottom Boogie” by Aerosmith with Pearl and The Electric Skates, a trio with guitars, costumed like Steven Tyler, dancing on skateboards. Yup.
But this Broadway musical saves its very own musical genre for the showstopper in Act 2’s “I Am Not a Loser” by They Might Be Giants”. Squidward takes a flight of fancy and imagines himself to be the star of the benefit show he’s producing. With choreography of inspired lunacy not seen since the “Little Old Ladies” number with walkers in THE PRODUCERS, Squidward, perfoming a four legged tap, leads sea anemones (sparkle-clad bodies with scarlet-plumed heads) in the kick-step chorus line of in the best Broadway tradition. Gavin Lee, as Squidward (who played Bert in MARY POPPINS) damn near steals the show. The number alone is worth the ticket price.
As with Gavin, the show is perfectly cast. Broadway newcomer Ethan Slater masters both the gee-whiz nerdiness of SpongeBob along with the vocal and athletic demands of the role. (Watch him perilously scale on the vertical the mouth of the volcano.) Kudos all around to Lilli Cooper as squirrel Sandy Cheek, and Danny Skinner as Patrick and Brian Ray Norris as Eugene Krabs making their Broadway debuts.
But it’s director Landau whose vision prevails, unifying performances and song. With Zinn and production designer Peter Nigrini, she’s created a Bikini Bottom world, complete with towering Rube Goldberg-like structures on either side of the stage that figure prominently in delivering volcanic tremors. (No spoiler.) Or the sea of jellyfish, hot pink and clear plastic umbrella contraptions that waltz down the aisles. If Zinn’s visual style here is animation-on-acid, the eye-popping lighting design by Kevin Adams can be coined dayglorama.
Like all crowd-pleasing musicals, SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS concludes with a crowd-pleaser. For SPONGEBOB, it’s “The Sponge Bob Theme Song”, of course. Sing along if you know the tune. And if not, just smile along awash in a cascade of seaweed streamers and sparkles, and clear plastic beach balls bouncing all over. SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS is a blast.