The Broadway Musical
Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 4, 2017
SpongeBob SquarePants Book by Kyle Jarrow. Original songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White Ts, They Might Be Giants, T. I., Domani & LilC. And songs by David Bowie & Brian Eno, Tom Kenny & Andy Paley. Additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton. Additional music by Tom Kitt. Musical production conceived and directed by Tina Landau. Music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Tom Kitt. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Scenic and 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 by Mike Dobson. Music director Julie McBride. Music coordinators Michael Keller and Michael Aarons. Cast: Ethan Slater, Danny Skinner, Gavin Lee, Lilli Cooper, Brian Ray Norris, Wesley Taylor, Jon Rua, Vasthy Mompoint, JC Schuster, Stephanie Hsu, Gaelen Gilliland, Abby C. Smith, Allan K. Washington, Jai Len Christine Li Josey, Kelvin Moon Loh, Lauralyn McClelland, Oneika Phillips, Jon Rua, Robert Taylor Jr., Logan Jones, Kyle Matthew Hamilton, Curtis Holbrook, Tom Kenny.
Be on notice, to get the most out of this two-and-a-half-hour free-wheeling extravaganza, it's best to have a familiarity with SpongeBob, the TV cartoon character who has been a popular part of the Nickelodeon franchise since 1999. If, for instance, you have no idea why I started this review with a reference to "nautical nonsense" (it's a line from the TV show's theme song), you really ought to bone up on Mr. SquarePants, his best pal Patrick, his grouchy neighbor Squidward, Mr. Krabs, Sandy Cheeks, and the other inhabitants of Bikini Bottom, the undersea world where they all live, work, and play. There's still a lot of fun to be had for the uninitiated, but the creators of the show have taken great pains to make sure fans will not be disappointed. Pretty much every touchstone has been included, and you'll miss a lot if you are not part of the in-crowd.
To begin with, try to arrive early enough to have time to feast your eyes on the décor. Onstage you will see three iconic dwellings: SpongeBob's pineapple, Squidward's Easter Island-inspired habitat, and the rock under which the starfish, SpongeBob's BFF Patrick, lives. Behind them, swimming across the pineapple-shaped scrim, are various tropical fishes and the occasional scuba diver. Then take a look around you. The theater is replete with odds and ends of flotsam and jetsam. Over here is a bicycle; and there, an oversized shopping cart. And hanging from the ceiling is a giant fishing lure. And there are all those blue metallic streamers everywhere. And more and more and more. Happily, many of these will be used during the production, so do take them in while you are listening to the pre-show music performed by the talented band, the ones who seem to be dressed for a Beach Boys concert. There's also a bit of business involving Patchy the Pirate (John Rua), a huge SpongeBob fan who is running around filming everything from his phone. When a security guard stops him with a "no filming" warning, Patchy replies, "But I'm making a pirate copy!"
And then comes the familiar voice of the narrator speaking in a fake French accent welcoming us to the world of Bikini Bottom, followed by a truly terrific opening number written by Jonathan Coulton, one of 14 songwriters or writing teams who have contributed new songs for the show. The kickoff song, called "Bikini Bottom Day," will surely remind you of "Good Morning Baltimore," the opener for Hairspray, a show that gets at least one other nod in a remark Squidward makes later in the evening. "Bikini Bottom Day" is a real rouser, the kind of number you can expect to see performed at next year's Tony Awards. It joyfully introduces us not only to our hero (a charming, delightful and tireless Ethan Slater), but also to Patrick (Danny Skinner); Squidward (Gavin Lee); Sandy, a squirrel who, naturally, lives under the sea (Lilli Cooper); Spongebob's boss Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris); and many of the others who will be running around the stage like fish fleeing from a shark for the rest of the evening.
The show is mostly made up of silly shenanigans and lots of big production numbers, several of which are quite good, a benefit of having so many contributors to the music. Credit Tom Kitt for handling the orchestrations and arrangements that pull it all together. There also is an actual plot (the book is by Kyle Jarrow). The Bikini Bottomanians have learned that a volcano is going to erupt in 36 hours, and that it will completely destroy everything. It's up to Spongebob, Patrick, and Sandy to come up with a plan to save the day (well, it's actually Sandy's plan; she's a scientist AND an expert in karate, after all!). In addition, there is a subplot concerning the rivalry between Mr. Krabs and the evil Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor), who runs another eatery, The Chum Bucket.
Before we continue, let us pause to pay special tribute to one Squidward Q. Tentacles, who has been labeled a "loser" all of his life, but here gets the coveted 11 o'clock number. And it's a doozy, as big and splashy as a Rockette's spectacle, placing both Squidward and his portrayer, Gavin Lee, in the center spot. Who knew that Squidward was such a splendid hoofer, sort of a shorter, four-legged version of Tommy Tune? His special song is called, predictably, "I'm Not A Loser." It was written by They Might Be Giants, and it is a great moment of affirmation, even if it does traffic in double and triple negatives: "I'm not a failure. I don't not have talent. When others see me, they can't see the nobody that isn't there."
There's actually quite a bit of affirmation in the show, in keeping with SpongeBob's generally sunny outlook on life. Other songs along this line are provided by Cyndi Lauper and Rob Human ("Hero Is My Middle Name"), Plain White T's ("BFF"), and Andy Paley and Tom Kenny ("Best Day Ever"). Even Patchy the Pirate gets to return to open the second act, with Sara Bareilles's rousing and comical "Poor Pirates." Here he's joined by a motley crew of pirates he says he picked up in a dive bar in Hells Kitchen; one of them is wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates outfit.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, there is a lot going on. And there are so many who contributed to this remarkable display of pyrotechnics. Special kudos to David Zinn for his totally insane scenic and costume design, and to whoever decided to use of a live sound effects artist (Foley design by Mike Dobson), and to Tina Landau, who conceived and directs the musical production, and to the excellent cast. In addition to the ones I've already mentioned, let me also single out Jai' Len Christine Li Josey, who blows the roof off in the role of Pearl Krabs, Mr. Krabs's teenage daughter (who happens to be a whale).
With so much talent and commitment at hand, it's easy to see why no one wanted to cut down SpongeBob SquarePants to a more manageable running time (i. e. manageable for parents of young children, either of whom might run out of steam long before the show does). It is certainly an overstuffed banquet for the eye and the ear, and it does run the risk of stimulus overload, but for fans of that happy-go-lucky member of the phylum porifera, it's not to be missed.