To See or Not to See: SpongeBob SquarePants
SpongeBob SquarePants will have you grinning ear to ear the entire show—and long after you leave the theater. You may not immediately think, “Broadway musical” when you think of the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants is adapted from, but in the hands of a very talented creative team (led by the fantastic Director Tina Landau), it’s made the leap from screen to stage beautifully.
Bikini Bottom, the town under the sea where our endearing hero, SpongeBob (Ethan Slater), lives is in trouble. Mount Humongous is a nearby dormant volcano that is about to erupt and destroy everything. The townspeople fall into despair and panic. Seeing his chance to get make Chum Bucket’s Chum Burgers the top fast food restaurant (finally beating money-hungry rival Eugene Krabs’ Krabby Patties), tiny evil schemer Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) concocts an evil plan to exploit Bikini Bottomers’ fear. With the help of his partner Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu), he sows more discord among the townspeople, encouraging them to flee their homes rather than try to prevent the eruption. So, SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) team up with scientist—and squirrel—Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) in a race against time to stop the volcano.
Songs from a variety of well-known musicians who come from a variety of genres make up the majority of SpongeBob‘s score. Just a few: Plain White T’s, Panic! At the Disco, T.I., The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, and Sara Bareilles. With the guidance of music supervisor and arranger Tom Kitt, despite the wide-range of musical styles these musicians come from, their songs all flow together, creating a cohesive show. They compliment one another, the characters, and the story.
The set is another bright and fantastic piece of SpongeBob that bears mentioning. David Zinn (who also designed the bright costumes) created an inventive, immersive world. The walls of the Palace Theatre shimmers in shades of blue fringe, mimicking life under water. Neon-colored mousetrap-esque contraptions flank the stage—they come to life a few times during the show to the surprise and delight of the audience. During the show itself, the use of hand-held set pieces gives SpongeBob a polished DIY feel, especially when combined with the larger backdrops and more elaborate pieces. It encourages the use of imagination, which is a cornerstone of some of the best live theater.
Finally, the characters share experiences that appeal not only to young children, but also speak volumes to adults. Everyone can relate to feeling less than. So many characters in SpongeBob SquarePants do, too. SpongeBob himself struggles with self-confidence throughout the show; Patrick, Sandy, and Sheldon all have similar feelings they try to tackle as well. SpongeBob’s coworker at Krab’s Burgers, Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee), has an entire, incredibly impressive tap dance while singing “I’m Not a Loser.” It is an exuberant display.
The actors themselves are all marvelous. The ensemble works together so well; all the leads are perfectly cast. Ethan Slater brings some of SpongeBob’s cartoon physical characteristics to life (his unique way of moving his hands as he walks). His entire performance is great—he never seems to exhaust himself and endears himself quickly to the audience. Also very endearing (and funny) is Danny Skinner as Patrick. Wesley Taylor gives a spot-on evil villain—with just enough campiness—performance. His rap, “When The Going Gets Tough” (which seems to be a tongue-in-cheek nod at Hamilton‘s rap battle sequences) was a hilarious highlight. Jai’ Len Christine Li Josey as Pearl Krabs belts out “Daddy Knows Best.” Her voice is jaw-dropping and, crazily, this is her Broadway debut. And, as previously mentioned, Gavin Lee is, as always, first-rate.
Another level to this storytelling is the direct correlation adults will see to our current political climate. The dismissal of science and fear of the other play big parts on stage. Since Sandy is a squirrel from above water living with sea creatures underwater, when the townspeople become frightened, she becomes their scapegoat. When science is presented as a way to help their impending doom, the townspeople scoff. But, plucky little SpongeBob sees the glass half full even when everyone around him doesn’t. He perseveres, makes things happen, and, naturally, saves the day with his friends. Smart thinking, teamwork, and a steadfast confidence in optimism are important lessons we take away from SpongeBob SquarePants. And, it is a welcome feeling that audiences are left with: one of pure happiness when you see that fear and ignorance can be defeated just by coming together as a community and as friends.
SpongeBob SquarePants is running at the Palace Theatre. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus