“SpongeBob SquarePants” ends with a cascade of confetti descending on our heads…AND crepe paper streamers…AND soap bubbles…followed by beach balls. This more or less sums up the more-is-more approach of the Broadway musical, which aims to win us over, whatever it’ll take. And so this show, based on the wildly popular television cartoon for children about a sponge, works hard to catch both your eye and your ear for two and a half hours, with a cast of more than two dozen talented performers singing and dancing to a score composed by almost as many songwriters — 22 different recording artists or bands, from David Bowie to Panic at the Disco — amid ceaseless bursts of psychedelic Day-Glo color created by David Zinn’s spectacularly playful sets.
SpongeBob SquarePants reportedly has a budget of $20 million, and it looks it.
It must be said that, unlike some previous Broadway musicals with similarly large budgets that entirely succumb to what I’ve called The Broadway Effect (a primary reliance on state-of-the-art stage effects), “SpongeBob SquarePants” can at times seem almost toned down (relatively speaking) where it matters. As the show’s signature sea creatures, the principal actors give grounded performances, sheathed in costumes (again by David Zinn) that suggest the cartoon originals, while keeping the actors recognizably human beings. In his Broadway debut, Ethan Slater, giving a breakout performance as SpongeBob, wears plaid pants, suspenders and a red tie, but no sponge head. As Eugene Krabs, a sea crab who is the owner of the Krusty Krab, Brian Ray Norris wears only an outsized pair of red boxing gloves. The always wonderful Wesley Taylor portrays Eugene’s rival restaurateur, the villainous Sheldon J. Plankton of the Chum Bucket, in an eye-patch and a tight-fitting, slightly slimy-looking green suit.
Clearly, Tina Landau, who conceived and directed the musical, hasn’t entirely abandoned her instincts as a serious theater artist. An ensemble member of Steppenwolf in Chicago for two decades, she has directed a range of weighty theater Off-Broadway, most recently Big Love by Charles Mee and Head of Passes by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
The show benefits as well from Tom Kitts ( Tony-award winning composer of Next to Normal),who serves as the music supervisor and orchestrator. He has helped assemble a tuneful and eclectic score of mostly original songs. Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith have given the show “Bikini Bottom Boogie,” a driving hard-edged rock song sung by fluorescent-colored punk rockers on skateboards, called the Electric Skates (a skate is a kind of fish, making this one of the better of the abundant fishy puns in the show.) John Legend’s contribution, “(I Guess I) Miss You,” is a lovely romantic ballad between Spongebob and his best friend Patrick Star (a starfish portrayed by Danny Skinner, one of several performers making impressive Broadway debuts.) The group They Might Be Giants wrote “I’m Not A Loser” as a showcase for Gavin Lee (Mary Poppins, Les Miz) as Squidward Q. Tentacles, a churlish octopus (his first words in the show are: “Another day, another migraine”) who fancies himself a sensitive artiste. Squidward lets loose in an over-the-top tap-dancing number accompanied by the feather-crowned chorus of Sea Anemones that recalls the “Turn It Off” tongue-in-cheek extravaganza in “The Book of Mormon.” Indeed, there are a few such moments, most of them very brief, that pay homage to/parody great musicals past – “Gypsy,” “Fiddler on the Roof” (which I suppose in a way is “SpongeBob” paying homage to “Book of Mormon.”)
There is some genuine wit in “SpongeBob SquarePants,” although it is primarily visual.
All of this makes for many enjoyable moments. But it’s still difficult to justify devoting two and a half hours to a cartoon sponge, even such a happy one. It doesn’t help that one can never completely forget (as one can with the best Disney musicals) that “SpongeBob” is the latest product of a franchise that has generated some $13 billion in revenue from merchandising alone since the TV series was launched on Nickelodeon in 1999. The musical slyly acknowledges this elephant on the stage right from the start, in a little scene that replaces the normal “turn off your cell phone” announcement, where a security guard chases off Patchy the Pirate and his pile of Spongebob items (including his Spongebob “shell phone”) which the security guard calls his “junk,” and Patchy calls his “collectibles.”
It’s obvious that more effort (and money?) went into the sights and sounds of the musical than its story. There are no especially memorable lyrics, and the plot is so simple and uninvolving it’s as if they didn’t want it to get in the way of the show:
SpongeBob enlists his friends, especially Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), a squirrel from Texas and a scientist, to help save Bikini Bottom from imminent doom from a suddenly erupting volcano called Mount Humongous. Along the way, the plot allows for some life lessons on the right way to deal in a crisis — working together, not scapegoating (the fish blame the squirrel at one point, because she’s a land-based mammal), distrusting politicians, caring about the planet. Such completely endorsable SquarePants family values makes it even more shameful to admit that, despite all the terrific talent and pleasing razzle dazzle, a theatergoer who isn’t seven years old or stoned or an unusually empathetic parent may secretly wish before the 150 minutes are up that Humongous will destroy Bikini Bottom soon and let us all get back early to dry land.
Conceived and directed by Tina Landau. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Music Supervision, orchestrations & arrangements by Tom Kitt. Sets & costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Walter Trarbach; projections, Peter Nigrini; hair, Charles G. LaPointe; makeup, Joe Dulude II; Foley Design; production stage manager, Julia Jones.
Cast: Ethan Slater as SpongeBob SquarePants, Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks, Brian Ray Norris as Eugene Krabs, Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton and Danny Skinner as Patrick Star.
Alex Gibson, Gaelen Gilliland, Juliane Godfrey, Kyle Matthew Hamilton, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Hsu, Jesse JP Johnson, L’ogan J’ones, Jai’len Josey, Kelvin Moon Loh, Lauralyn McClelland, Vasthy Mompoint, Oneika Phillips, Jon Rua, JC Schuster, Abby C. Smith, Robert Taylor Jr., Allan Washington, Brynn Williams, Matt Wood and Tom Kenny
Original songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of AEROSMITH, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and T.I., and a song by David Bowie. With additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton.