New York City Theater
Who’s the target audience for the cheerful, proudly ridiculous stage musical of TV’s “SpongeBob SquarePants”? Stephen Hillenburg’s popular Nickelodeon show, all about denizens of the undersea Bikini Bottom, probably appeals to kids who once watched “Teletubbies” before moving on to “Sesame Street.” Sentient adults might try “The Band’s Visit.”
No matter. The lavish stage show (cost: a reported $20 million) has such familiar, wacky characters as Squidward Q. Tentacles (a terrific, show-stopping Gavin Lee), Sandy Cheeks, Eugene Krabs (his claws are red boxing gloves), Sheldon Plankton, Larry the Lobster and a chorus – or is it a chum? -- of sardines. Not to mention Gary, the pet snail.
It also has a jokey book by Kyle Jarrow that inserts a tiny dollop of environmental and immigration seriousness, plus a plethora of pleasant songs by not one composer but several, such as Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend and David Bowie, plus Aerosmith, The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips and They Might Be Giants. From the jaunty opening, “Bikini Bottom Day” by Jonathan Coulton, to the memorable “Best Day Ever” by Andy Paley and Tom Kenny, the eclectic score is more Broadway musical comedy than contemporary rock.
Starring the athletic, ingratiating, throw-it-all-to-the-winds Ethan Slater as the eponymous SpongeBob, the plot has something to do with neutralizing a nearby volcano (Mount Humongous) before it spews species-killing lava. (They will use soap bubbles as the “eruptus interruptus.”)
It isn’t worth worrying about the plot, however, not when you have a set designed, Rube Goldberg style, by Tony winner David Zinn with pool noodles as kelp, paper cups as coral and a curtain of SpongeBob’s pineapples. Zinn is also responsible for the flamboyant costumes, everything lit in psychedelic colors by the estimable Kevin Adams.
The whole shebang is directed by Tina Landau who also conceived the show and, before her lightbulb went off, spent much of her time with Chicago’s Steppenwolf, a serious theater troupe. Yet, nothing wrong with purely escapist, silly, spectacular extravaganza, if you really want your money’s worth.
The exuberant Slater inhabits two worlds, cartoonish and real, while Lee, in his four-legged costume, taps out a roof-raising “I’m Not a Loser” with a bevy of male and female Anemones (giddily choreographed by Christopher Gattelli). There are surefire turns by Danny Skinner as Patrick Star, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks, Brian Ray Norris as Eugene Krabs, Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton and John Rua as Patchy the Pirate who, when dragged off the stage, shouts “This is peg-leg phobia!”
Or, how about: “You’re just a simple sponge, boy. And yet somehow you don’t seem to absorb very much”?
It’s that kind of show.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 18, 2017