REVIEW: “SpongeBob SquarePants” to the rescue!

REVIEW: “SpongeBob SquarePants” to the rescue!

The end is coming.

And it might just be a “simple sponge” who saves the day.  

SpongeBob SquarePants”, the “Broadway musical for everyone”, splashed onto the Great White Way this evening, opening at the Palace Theatre and offering a buoyant antidote to these beleaguered times.  This bright, silly, and sweet new party of a musical, based on the beloved, long-running hit Nickelodeon cartoon program of the same name, is big-hearted and big fun.

The titular character of SpongeBob SquarePants (Ethan Slater) is an optimistic and ebullient sea sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea with his meowing pet snail Gary.  As brought to life by Mr. Slater (a former high school wrestler), in an energetic and dashing debut, he’s lithe and limber, earnest and instantly lovable.  Mr. Slater spurts through the physical demands of the role—it’s a marathon—popping and locking, sliding, back-bending, and high kicking, and jauntily leading a merry cast with abiding confidence and infectious ease.  This is one cool sponge.  And he nails that signature SpongeBob laugh.

In an inspired move, a live foley artist is on hand in house left to punctuate the onstage action, just like in the cartoon, capturing the ridiculous essence of the world created by animator Stephen Hillenburg, each footstep provided a silly squish, and generous use of the slide whistle employed throughout.

SpongeBob is a fry cook at the Krusty Krab, a popular burger joint owned by the miserly Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris) locked in a fast food cold war with the diminutive, one-celled Sheldon J. Plankton (Wesley Taylor) of the Chum Bucket—the least popular restaurant in this aquatic village—and his wife, a computer named Karen (Stephanie Hsu). 

SpongeBob’s neighbors in Bikini Bottom include his best friend, the not-so-bright Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), a paunchy pink starfish, and his co-worker, the sardonically arrogant Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee), who is a repressed artisté.  Rounding out this absurd and motley crew of undersea dwellers is a chipper and precocious squirrel from Texas named Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Taylor), Mr. Krabs’ restless teenage whale daughter Pearl Krabs (Jai’ Len Christine Li Josey), who packs some powerful vocal chops, slick news anchor Perch Perkins (Kelvin Moon Loh), Larry the Lobster (Allan K. Washington), The Mayor (Gaelen Gilliland), a Sardine Corps, and a “vast array of undersea creatures”, some of whom vogue.

As for plot, SpongeBob is out to prove that he’s management material—not just a “simple sponge”—when Bikini Bottom is suddenly threatened with obliteration from a looming volcanic eruption by the aptly named Mount Humongous.  While he, Patrick, and Sandy hatch a plan to save the town, the comically evil (but never mean) Plankton conspires to hypnotize its citizens into loving his sub-par chum burgers while gathered in a proposed escape pod to their new home, “Chumville”.

Like the Coyote and the Roadrunner—and Lucy, Charlie, and the football—nothing is more reliable than Plankton’s inevitably foiled schemes.  As the clock ticks toward the final eruption and their certain destruction, friendships—and the mettle of Bikini Bottom’s residents—are tested, and lessons learned. 

While shepherding this now-iconic and high value brand to the stage over the past decade, conceiver and director Tina Landau clearly took some Shakespearean advice to heart.  If there was ever a glowing example of “to thine own self be true”, it is “SpongeBob SquarePants” the musical.  This show knows itself and, more importantly, upholds the integrity of the source material and its celebrated and clever, surrealist, and nonsensical comedy.  It delivers what the audience wants, like a non-stop parade of silly puns and wordplays, remaining funny and engaging for audiences of all ages.

Like Julie Taymor before her, Ms. Landau smartly eschewed boxy theme park costumes for the characters, opting to dress Bikini Bottom’s famous residents in clothes representative of their cartoon analogues.  This is a stage play, after all, not a cartoon or a theme park.

She also envisioned the creation of a makeshift, immersive setting featuring a hodge podge of materials evoking a tacky, bright, and squeaky splendor with the glamour equivalent of a well-produced middle school pageant, both vibrant and sleek, and borrowing heavily from the Necco color palette and a breezy 1960s beach aesthetic.

The sets and costumes exquisitely designed by David Zinn are wonderfully illuminated by Kevin Adams’ poppy and colorful lighting design.  The walls of the Palace Theatre’s famed auditorium draped in shiny blue and green mylar fringe and bathed in an underwater lighting effect simulating waves moving above; a hula hoop tunnel, kelp made from severed pool noodles, coral fashioned out of red solo cups, and plastic, inflatable palm trees bookend a bubble and bauble bedazzled proscenium; giant Rube Goldberg contraptions (echoes of Pee-Wee Herman’s breakfast machine) cover the box seats.  This assembled detritus resembles what you might find, after all, at the bottom of the sea.

To match the irreverent, scrapbook collage spirit of the setting, Ms. Landau built the musical’s score by approaching over a dozen well-known recording artists to compose new songs—including Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, T.I., Aerosmith, The Flaming Lips, Panic at the Disco!, and They Might Be Giants, among others—and, in the case of the late-David Bowie and Brian Eno, to lend an old one.  The bittersweet “Best Day Ever” and iconic title song from the cartoon also make appearances. 

Few songs advance the plot in any meaningful way, most interrupting and pausing the action, and they are uneven in quality—Sandy’s material is particularly lackluster—but not tone, thanks to music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger Tom Kitt’s skillful hand.  Mr. Kitt assembles a mélange of style and sound (show tunes, rap, pop, country, gospel) to fashion a score that works, and includes some catchy tunes.

There are a multitude of ways in which “SpongeBob SquarePants” the musical could be a hot mess.  Amazingly, Ms. Landau ordered cohesion through a measured restraint that ably avoids the patter of sketch and the danger of kitsch-overload.  Don’t get me wrong, the play is divinely decadent—replete with lush sets and costumes and big, flashy production numbers (choreography by Christopher Gattelli)—but it is also grounded, providing both the necessary cartoon sensory overload and quieter, tender moments that give it a spine and an emotional arc.

To wit, “SpongeBob SquarePants” is filled with casual allegories.  Sandy, the only mammal, is scapegoated (or “scapesquirreled” as she says) for the town’s impending doom.  Plankton leads a mob of “Townsfish” to join in rejecting Sandy’s scientific reasoning, casting doubt on “tidal warming”.  There’s a “no-swim” list enforced during curfew from a Mayor who declares: “You’re either with me or you’re against me”.  Patrick, the vapid star fish, attracts a cult of sardines who see him as a prophet messiah.  The Mayor leads a Kafkaesque response to the crisis, blaming the media.  And the town nearly destroys itself before it can be destroyed from the outside.

Does any of this sound familiar? 

The audience is trusted to make the connections without sanctimonious or gratuitous preening from the writers.  The book by Kyle Jarrow captures the cheerful Dadaesque spirit of the cartoon and, at its heart, provides a poignant lesson about the value of community and inclusion, performed by a refreshingly diverse cast.  Without lingering on a message too long, the show closes with an explosion of fireworks, streamers, confetti, bubbles, and beach balls—the perfect over-the-top send off for an evening of pure delight.

I did not expect to be as entertained and, more notably, moved by “SpongeBob SquarePants”, but it is 2017 after all, and the world is, as Squidward Q. Tentacles says: “a horrible place filled with fear, suffering and despair ... also dashed hopes, shattered dreams, broken promises and abject misery.”

And yet, each of us can still look to an eternally optimistic sea sponge for some inspiration, and try our hardest to make each day the “Best Day Ever”. 

At this point, I’ll take hope wherever I can get it.  If Bikini Bottom can make it, maybe so can we.

Bottom Line: “SpongeBob SquarePants”—a bright, silly, and sweet new party of a musical—is big-hearted and big fun; director and conceiver Tina Landau has skillfully adapted the popular Nickelodeon cartoon for the stage in a buoyant and exuberant production that is both entertaining and moving for theatregoers of all ages, offering a welcomed antidote to these beleaguered times.

SpongeBob SquarePants
Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: December 4, 2017
Closing: Open Ended
Discount Tickets

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