I did not want to like the SpongeBob SquarePants musical. As both a self-proclaimed high-brow theatregoer (others might call me a theatre snob) and a young adult who watched the TV show so often that I basically grew up in Bikini Bottom, I was convinced that there would be no way for a musical adaptation of the popular television show to be of any quality or substance. As theatre history has shown, it’s incredibly difficult to create critically acclaimed adaptations of cartoons (think of the injuries, opening delays, and scathing reviews behind Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). For a show with such a large fanbase as SpongeBob, it is nearly impossible to please everyone and live up to fans’ expectations. However, I was amazed by the quality of the musical. The cast and creative team, a group of seasoned theatre professionals and brilliant songwriters, have created a musical that is not only visually stunning but also thematically exciting and relevant, especially for teenagers and young adults who can still quote the TV show like it’s their job.
Upon entering the Palace Theatre, where the show is performed, I was immediately transported “under the sea,” created mostly from Party City-esque goods. Blue fringe streamers lined the walls of the theatre and the proscenium while bouquets of pink-painted Solo Cups and blue-green pool noodles created sea anemones and patches of kelp, respectively. On stage, the “pineapple under the sea” served as the curtain. The result was a buzzing audience, with the adults releasing their inner children and senses of imagination. For real children, the theatre was a wonderland. There was a little girl sitting behind me who could barely sit still, in awe of the amazing detail that surrounded her. The rest of the DIY set was comprised of more common household objects such as ladders and trash bins and boxes (oh my!). The costumes also added to the overall sense of whimsy. Tony-winner David Zinn designed both the set and costumes. He was careful to create costumes that were toned down from the typical theme park mascots to realistic interpretations of the characters. SpongeBob was not a big yellow square, but instead wore a yellow button down with the iconic red tie and brown plaid pants. The set and costumes were both tasteful and well-designed, and they worked together to immerse us into the world of the show.
The book and music, while cheesy and oversimplified at times, were overall exciting, cohesive and – strangely enough – politically observant. On this particular “best day ever” in Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob is faced with the task of saving his beloved town. After a predictable and somewhat disappointing opening number, “Bikini Bottom Day” written by Jonathan Coulton, which admittedly rubbed me the wrong way at first, we find out that a volcano near Bikini Bottom, Mount Humongous, is going to explode by the next day at sundown. Fear immediately wreaks havoc on the city. The media and government, portrayed by a spunky newscaster and a Mayor, who is reminiscent of an eerily familiar modern politician, turn against each other. The townspeople create an angry mob against Sandy Cheeks, scapegoated (or scape-squirreled) because she is a land mammal and therefore different from the other sea creatures. While this is happening, Plankton and his computer wife Karen capitalize on this fear to create an evil plan for Bikini Bottom domination. With clear parallels drawn to our current political situation in the United States, it is then up to Sandy, the brains of the operation, Patrick, the brawn, and SpongeBob, the…well, he’s not quite sure what he is yet (as he sings in “Not a Simple Sponge” written by Panic! At the Disco), to save the day and stop the volcano from erupting.
Creator and director Tina Landau, among many other credits, is a former ensemble member of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and co-author of The Viewpoints Book, which teaches a method of composition and acting. It is her theatrical genius, along with the rest of her creative team, that allows the show to effectively mirror the tone of the hilarious TV show, and to have just the right amount of ridiculousness, optimism, and wholeheartedness. Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the book, is careful (for the most part) not to create caricatures, but instead three dimensional characters. While I would have liked a bit more development of Plankton and Mr. Krabs, the attention to detail in the other characters made my concerns seem minute and nit-picky. The gaggle of famous songwriters such as Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, John Legend and Cyndi Lauper managed to create a score that is unique and diverse, but still cohesive with the help of Tony-winner Tom Kitt, who arranged and orchestrated the show.
The cast, comprised of as many Broadway veterans as debuts, is full of standout performances, from eighteen-year old powerhouse belter Jai’len Christine Li Josey as Pearl the Whale to a tap dancing Squidward Tentacles (who brought the house down in his showstopping number) played by Gavin Lee. Lilli Cooper, a Broadway fave of mine, played a fierce and heartwarming Sandy Cheeks. However, the most noteworthy performance definitely comes from the yellow sponge himself. Ethan Slater is definitely a person to watch out for in the near future of theatre. The 24-year-old is making his Broadway debut but has already won a BroadwayWorld Chicago Best Actor Award for the out-of-town tryout of the show. Slater is something of a quintuple threat (at least, I’m sure there are more threats that I’m forgetting). Not only is he a remarkable singer, dancer and actor, but he also completes acrobatic tricks and a spot-on SpongeBob impression with ease. At one point in the show, he belted a note while hanging upside down off of a ladder. If for nothing else, go see this show for Slater’s performance, as it is definitely a debut that you’ll regret skipping.
As a whole, this show is a great evening out whether you are a kid or an adult, or a mega-fan or new to the world of Spongebob. Though, as New York Times critic Ben Brantley suggests, you might want to do some research by watching a few episodes of the TV show before you go. The political undertones and childhood nostalgia make the show incredibly relevant and fitting for our time. While the show wraps itself up in a neater bow than is feasible for real life, it clearly investigates the question of how communities respond to fear and disaster, and what the role of the individual is in political turmoil.
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical fits in perfectly with the trend of exposing young people to Broadway theatre and engaging a new audience, much like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen have done. As our generation enters young adulthood, the musical comes at a perfect time, invoking feelings of childhood nostalgia. For those who still know every line of “The Campfire Song Song” or have more SpongeBob merchandise hiding in their closet than they care to admit, this show will not disappoint. You will hear both the TV show’s opening theme song and the song “Best Day Ever” during the show, and you’ll laugh at your favorite jokes that were notorious to the TV show. And whether you’re a super fan or not, you will definitely be pleasantly surprised, as I was, by our “absorbent and yellow and porous” friend.