A new kind of cockeyed optimist has arrived at the Palace Theatre in the form of SpongeBob SquarePants, the indefatigably cheery anthropomorphic hero of the globally successful Nickelodeon animated television series, now turned into an outsized Broadway musical. What a welcome the creators of this new musical have contrived for a “simple sponge!” There is more (subaquatic) urban commotion on stage than there is in Times Square outside the theater.
For those not familiar with the animated show, the sponge in question does not look like the actual ocean genus, but instead resembles a synthetic kitchen version that has taken up residence in a similarly displaced pineapple. In the television series, SpongeBob, flanked by a loyal meowing pet snail and his friends, a starfish and a squirrel, is often trying to improve the lives of those around him.
A whole new story has been developed for the Broadway stage iteration, which involves a threat to the continued existence of Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob’s home, and all the creatures in it, from a volcano erupting in the next 24 hours. SpongeBob and his scientifically inclined, martial arts-practicing squirrel friend, Sandy Cheeks, set out to scale the volcano and use scientific know-how to deflect the eruption. As community civility diminishes under pressure, the musical seems to take on contemporary resonance with declarations such as “Land mammals go home” and “Trust your government to save you from the coming disaster.” All of this led me to wonder if the zeitgeist references were inserted merely to amuse adult patrons, even those without accompanying small people. Would it even be possible to grasp certain elements of the show without familiarity with the cartoon?
In moving from animation to all-singing, all-dancing live action, the challenge for the adapters is to retain enough of the original source material to satisfy devotees, while creating a compelling fresh story to be experienced on stage. This task fell to director and co-conceiver Tina Landau, a theater artist whose work I have long admired. To do this, Landau leaves almost no storytelling device unexplored, creating theatrical sorcery in this lavish production. But while the effects are impressive, often I simply wished for time to enjoy less frenetic moments of connection. Less is never more, it seems, under the sea.
Landau plays with scale and uses puppets, circus choreography, interactive pre-show activity, blacklight, actors joining us in the audience and more to create this theater magic. Foley sound effects — providing noises such as SpongeBob’s squeaky walk — give us a beguiling dose of visible performance art. This leads to a carnival-like atmosphere and the sense that anything could happen at any moment.
Consistent with the pastiche fusion approach to staging, the score features songs by contemporary artists from almost every conceivable musical idiom — most numbers were commissioned for the show, with additional music by Tom Kitt. He and musical director Julia McBride are to be commended for making the musical journey seem smooth and continuous despite the genre hopping. The strongest musical choice for me was a repurposing of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “No Control,” which startlingly resonated as an anthem not just for the citizens of Bikini Bottom, but for us as well.
The scenery, by the estimable David Zinn, who was also the costume designer, follows suit as set pieces spill off the stage, made up of elements ranging from “found” objects — pool noodles are recycled as kelp and ordinary cardboard boxes become a volcanic mountain moved by stagehands on wheeled carts — to high tech effects. But I also appreciated the sophisticated projections by Peter Nigrini, who created the beautiful evocation of moving tides punctuated by drifting fish in the moments before the show began, which offered a rare moment of quiet enchantment. Add some fantasy machinery that obligingly delivers faux boulders to the stage and the subterranean surround is packed — if you will excuse — to the gills.
The book of the musical by Kyle Jarrow incorporates the functional tropes of the series well enough: the value of friendship and teamwork, the virtues of persistence, honoring your community, accepting that there are many different kinds of fish in the sea and that “all are welcome,” at least until they are not. However, instead of following the conventions of the television narrative, it seems that anything that is lively went into the storyline, which muddles the message.
Subplots among the supporting characters proliferate, but end up as superfluous, or underdeveloped red herrings. Did exploitive, money-grubbing capitalist Eugene Krabs ever reform and truly value his daughter, who apparently is meant to be a whale, or her musical talent? Why, under considerable pressure to literally save his world, does SpongeBob take time to sit on a mountain and mope in song about a falling out with this best friend — a not too bright starfish who has inspired a messianic doomsday cult? Still with me? I am quite willing to suspend disbelief and run with the surreal and/or the satirical, but I could not figure out how to join and play the game of this world.
It falls to the preternaturally well-cast Broadway newcomer Ethan Slater to both embody the significant details of the SpongeBob character and anchor the proceedings. Fortunately, this physically expressive and gifted young performer meets both challenges at an extraordinarily high level. He’s in good company, with Wesley Taylor as a charismatically loathsome and scheming bit of plankton and Gavin Lee as the mournful squid, who later releases his inner Liberace in a sensational tap number. And the big-voiced Jai’Len Christine Li Josey as the neglected daughter Pearl demonstrates the potential to become a 21st-century Jennifer Holliday. I wish that Lilli Cooper, who plays Sandy, either had more to work with in terms of her material or else had worked her material more, as Sandy, the brains of the operation, often came across as a little bland. The diverse cast includes a versatile and energetic ensemble that supports the leads winningly and willingly tackles any assignment with verve.
Zinn, ingeniously, but not literally costumes these actors. Nothing about the appearance of “Patrick,” for example, tells us that he is meant to be a starfish, or, minus her signature helmet, how “Sandy” breathes underwater.
Choreographer Christopher Gattelli gives the company gleeful, high-powered numbers, while occasionally simply inventing movement for what looks like the sheer fun of it. However, some musical sequences are overextended and would benefit from compressing. The show clocks in at just over two-and-a-half hours, which might be a strain for “pint-sized” audience members.
Despite these caveats, true SpongeBob “believers” — and stoners, judging from the whiff of weed around me in the mezzanine — are going to have a great time. The musical is sufficiently skillfully assembled that family audiences seeking an antidote to too much reality will likely take the deep dive to Bikini Bottom looking for that “Best Day Ever,” as one of the songs goes. And they’ll likely be glad they did so.
“SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” opened at the Palace Theatre on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.
Creative: Conceived by Tina Landau; Book by Kyle Jarrow; Based on the Series by Stephen Hillenburg; Original Songs by Yolanda Adams,Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and T.I.; Songs by David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley; Additional music by Tom Kitt; Additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton; Music orchestrated by Tom Kitt; Music arranged by Tom Kitt; Musical Director: Julie McBride.
Directed by Tina Landau; Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by David Zinn; Lighting Design by Kevin Adams; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Sound Design by Walter Trarbach; Hair Design by Charles G. LaPointe; Make-Up Design by Joe Dulude, II; Foley Design: Mike Dobson.
Producers: Nickelodeon, The Araca Group, Sony Music Masterworks and Kelp on the Road.
Cast: Ethan Slater, Lilli Cooper, Gavin Lee, Brian Ray Norris, Danny Skinner, Wesley Taylor, Gaelen Gilliland, Kyle Matthew Hamilton, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Hsu, L’ogan J’ones, Jai’len Christine Li Josey, Tom Kenny, Kelvin Moon Loh, Lauralyn McClelland, Vasthy Mompoint, Oneika Phillips, Jon Rua, JC Schuster, Abby C. Smith, Robert Taylor Jr., Allan K. Washington.