By Patrick O’Brien
In promotional materials for the new SpongeBob Musical, co-conceiver and director Tina Landau is quoted as saying in complete earnest, “I think the world needs a SpongeBob musical.”
Initial reaction to the show was varied, to say the least, and not altogether unjustified. Considering the elements at play—a cultural juggernaut, a visionary director, pop superstar writers and the backing of Big Entertainment—the company had equal chances of ending up with something alive and heartfelt (like a Lion King) or something confusing and cynical (like a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark).
Only time will tell whether SpongeBob will be blessed with decades-long life (it has yet to book a Broadway theater), but in this first showing, there is lot of promise, a lot of invention and a lot of the joy and spirit that made the yellow sea-dweller a cartoon sensation for kids and adults alike.
So, as with all musicals based on (for lack of a better word) franchises, what is the one SpongeBob plot that simply had to be told via stage musical? The end of the world, natch. Mount Humongous ain’t dormant anymore, and it’s gonna blow SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) and company’s home, Bikini Bottom, off the ocean floor. Tensions mount and cartoonish hilarity ensues. (And don’t worry, those few people who’ve lived under a rock the last 15 years; there’s a solid primer of an opening number—by Jonathan Coulton—that’ll get you up to speed.)
In retrospect, Kyle Jarrow, whose theater credits are probably the most eclectic of an already eclectic creative team, is exactly the guy you’d want for something as surreal as SpongeBob, considering he’s done shows about things like hostage crises and Scientology. Now, whether that plot is just right or too little will vary, depending on taste. On one hand, thinness of plot over a two-act musical is always a concern, even in one with as much energy as this one. On the other, it’s an ample-enough set-up to watching a colorful cast of characters—be they childhood favorites or new faces—react to trying times.
Some give in to anxiety and panic. Some, like the greedy Mr. Krabs (Carlos Lopez) and his arch rival Plankton (Nick Blaemire), manipulate that panic to their advantage. Others, like a band of sardines, surrender their power and autonomy to whomever they think can “save” them.
Surreal and timely, no? Landau was onto something, you’d have to admit.
Also on hand to guide us up the volcano: a who’s-who of pop songwriters, some versed in musicals (Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper), most not, but all big fans of the show. The stated approach—hand off a given moment in the script to a songwriter whose personality would be a good fit—largely works, no small thanks to Tom Kitt’s arrangements that both unify the score yet make each number distinct.
As usual for out-of-town tryouts, not every song is a winner; Alex Ebert’s “Daddy Knows Best” and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry’s “Bikini Bottom Boogie,” though as rocking as anything they’ve put out, go to side characters who aren’t quite as developed. Either the songs go, or the characters do. One wonders how the rewriting process will go. But it’s a process that has yielded winners like “BFF” (“That stands for us!”) (by the Plain White T’s), “(Just A) Simple Sponge” (by Panic! At the Disco), and, probably the best of the bunch, “I’m Not a Loser” (by They Might Be Giants), the most “Broadway” number in the show.
That number—a sequined, chorus-lined fight against insecurity performed by Squidward (Gavin Lee)—is probably the singular moment that defines SpongeBob’s “try everything” spirit. Name a trick of stagecraft—acrobatics, stretching props, skateboarding, Rube Goldbergian contraptions—and it’s there. Name a style of dance, and Christopher Gattelli has pulled it off with panache and humor. Name a scenic or costuming trick, and David Zinn has probably done it. (Pictures don’t do justice to the pool-noodle-y magic he’s worked on the Oriental.) Landau has been corralling these elements for years, she says, and Neptune, it shows.
Last, but certainly not least, can Slater, Danny Skinner (Patrick), Lee, and Lilli Cooper (Sandy) knock us out in ways similar to, but distinct from, their predecessors Tom Kenny, Bill Faggerbakke, Rodger Bumpass and Caroyln Lawrence? Simply put, yes. Be they newbies or seasoned professionals, they’re ready, they’re ready, they’re ready for the big time.
It’s probably sacrilege to say something like this in on an arts site, but kudos must be given to the suits at Nickelodeon for implicitly trusting this motley crew as much as they have with their absorbent friend. And even if there is a lot to absorb seeing it, and a fair few things to iron out, one thing is clear: these days, The SpongeBob Musical is more than welcome.
Broadway in Chicago presents “The SpongeBob Musical” through July 10 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph St., Chicago. More information and tickets ($33-100) are available by calling (800) 775-2000 or online here. Photos by Joan Marcus.