My youth was spent loving cartoons. I grew up in the generation who religiously watched Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny. Daffy Duck. The Roadrunner. If anyone had said anything bad about those cartoons, well, we would have had a problem. I mention this because my first reaction to hearing the news that there would be a SpongeBob Squarepants musical was one of puzzlement. “How can they make a musical out of a cartoon like SpongeBob?” I asked myself in resigned condescension. “It can’t be any good, right?”
Well, I am happy to tell you that SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical now playing at the Palace Theater on Broadway is an assault on the senses. And I mean that in a good way. Conceived and directed by visionary director Tina Landau and designed by the team who did Fun Home, Spring Awakening and Hedwig & The Angry Inch, SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical takes the beloved characters from Bikini Bottom and crafts a new story filled with songs by legendary musical artists like David Bowie, Brian Eno, Plain White T’s, Panic At the Disco, Cyndi Lauper, Yolanda Adams, The Flaming Lips, Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Lady Antebellum, John Legend and They Might Be Giants.
When a nearby volcano begins to rumble and send boulders flying towards Bikini Bottom (ingeniously staged by two giant Rube Goldberg-type devices on the sides of the stage), the citizens of Bikini Bottom face impending doom in varying yet predictable ways. Mr. Krabs, played by Brian Ray Norris, sees the apocalypse as the chance to sell a boatload of Crabby Patties. The nefarious Sheldon Plankton and the loyal yet wonderfully sarcastic Karen, played by Wesley Taylor and Stephanie Hsu, hatch a plot to convince everyone leave town in a vessel so they can hypnotize the town to eat chum from The Chum Bucket (don’t ask.) And Patrick Star, hilariously played by Danny Skinner, becomes a cult leader/savior to a school of sardines, complete with a brightly colored, one would say Technicolor, coat and a Jesus Christ Superstar-style song. When the town starts to panic and the media and the mayor turn on one another, the citizens in town (in a very Trumpian, 2017 way) blame science and the outsider to Bikini Bottom, comprised in one form as Sandy Cheeks, a scientist-squirrel from Texas played by Lilli Cooper. And when the vessel to move everyone out of harm’s way costs too much money, it is left to Squidward J. Tentacles to organize a benefit concert with The Electric Skates and finally achieve his dream of playing his clarinet for an adoring audience. Squidward is played by Broadway veteran Gavin Lee and has a show stopping, Broadway-style tap dance number complete with dancing sea anemones.
The whole thing is held together by our hero Spongebob, who tries to save Bikini Bottom from the volcano. As Spongebob, Ethan Slater is truly fantastic. Keeping the manic energy and relatively-vacant intellect of the cartoon version intact, Slater makes Spongebob the leading man and hero he wants to be. The design of the show is simply mind blowing. From the moment you enter the theatre, you are inundated with underwater lighting effects and a color palate hovering somewhere between neon and a box of glow in the dark highlight markers. The stage even includes a sound effects station on one side and the most hip, laid back island music band on the other. The set design uses a combination of projected video screens and ingenious staging devices to create the world of Bikini Bottom. In particular, the staging of the climb up the volcano using three cargo carts and stacks of boxes is so creative in its staging and so simply effective.
In earlier photos of the show when it played in Chicago, I noticed that the costumes started as representations of the cartoon’s images. As the show has evolved, the designers have shed the trappings of having a leading man dance as a giant sponge to evoking the characters in clever, subtle ways. Once we get to know everyone, we don’t need to actually see Mr. Krabs as a crab or Patrick as an actual starfish. The magic of the theatre allows us all in the audience to get the premise, make the connection and then enjoy the actors doing their thing. The design of the show and the constant inundation of the audience’s senses makes this a memorable show and not one to miss. Oh, and did I mention that there’s a pirate dance number? That alone should make it worth your while.
But the real reason not to miss this show is the audience. I felt like I was at a rock concert. When I looked around and saw the audience fist pumping to moments in the show and screaming when their favorite characters first appeared, it dawned on me that for many teenagers and young adults, Spongebob Squarepants is this generation’s Looney Tunes, a combination of abject, almost absurdist, silliness and slightly biting social commentary. I can confidently say the decision to turn Spongebob Squarepants into this high energy musical was a brilliant decision.