He may originally have lived in a pineapple under the sea, but right now, SpongeBob SquarePants is calling the Windy City home. The $18 million dollar question being shopped around is will there be an audience out there to support this new venture? Will Broadway sustain a full scale musical based on a (non-Disney) child’s cartoon? From what I saw on display, the answer is a decisive yes! The SpongeBob Musical is a wildly inventive, creatively structured, visually eye-popping, original new musical. Co-conceived and directed by one of Steppenwolf Theater’s favorites, Tina Landau, this joy-filled pre-Broadway tryout is on its way to becoming another family favorite destination for the Great White Way. Uniting the talented design teams behind recent hits Fun Home, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Spring Awakening, this time diving deep under the sea to bring to life the colorfully enchanting world of Bikini Bottom. With a quirky book written by Kyle Jarrow and music supervision from Tom Kitt, original songs contributed by The Flaming Lips, Cyndi Lauper, Steven Tyler, David Bowie, Panic! at the Disco, They Might Be Giants, Plain White T’s, Lady Antebellum, Sara Bareilles, Yolanda Adams, and more, the behind the scenes crew certainly is working energetically to make this concept work. The titular character, SpongeBob SquarePants, originally aired on Nickelodeon in July of 1999 to huge success, followed with a 2015 Paramount Pictures film which opened at number one, and subsequently, billions of dollars of SpongeBob merchandise has been sold all over the globe. This company is now hoping to translate that established brand to Broadway ticket sales with an optimistic attitude paralleled to their yellow hero.
Starring as the Nickelodeon modern-day cartoon classic central character, SpongeBob, is Ethan Slater, a remarkably agile and talented leading man. His arm sway by his sides while walking, cleverly mimicking the nuances of the cartoon, while making the part, squarely his own. Joining him on his adventure, best friend, Patrick (Danny Skinner) a dim witted starfish with a heart of gold, and the rest of the residents from Bikini Bottom, including restaurateur Eugene Krabs (Carlos Lopez) as well as the villainous, Sheldon Plankton (Nick Blaemire) and Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu). The story centers around a doomsday scenario, as the long dormant volcano, Mount Humongous, is set to erupt and wipe out all of Bikini Bottom. As the citizens panic, SpongeBob decides to utilize his “management stills” to save the town he loves. Enter Sandy Cheeks, the Squirrel (Lilli Cooper) a Texas-born scientist, currently doing her undersea exploration conveniently on the ocean floor. Inventing “The Eruptor Interrupter” can she, Patrick and SpongeBob save their fair city? A delightful marriage of teamwork, friendship, and science, there are jubilant and euphoric moments galore. Cyndi Lauper’s “Hero Is My Middle Name” and John Legend’s “(I Guess I) Miss You” are poignant soundtrack highlights.
Set and costume designer David Zinn’s crafted a fully functioning, life-sized, two story Mouse Trap-like contraption, erected on both sides of the stage, to represent the erupting volcano. The poor ushers had to work double-time preventing awestruck members of the audience from taking mid-show photos with their cell phones of this apparatus in action. Truly, this set must be personally seen to be believed and thoroughly appreciated. Mount Humongous is created using an intricate series of intertwining ladders and cardboard boxes. The muti-story set and remarkable projection design from Peter Nigrini are certain to be recognized at Tony Award-nomination time. Then there is the choreography. Christopher Gattelli’s full scale tap number in act two featuring Squidward Tentacles (Gavin Lee) the sardonic octopus, belting out They Might Be Giants “I’m Not A Loser” with a full chorus line of crustaceous in tow is, simply put, a show stopper. Mr. Lee and Mr. Gattelli are both on the road to Tony nods as well.
Whether you are a ardent fan of the cartoon, or a newcomer to this enchanting world, SpongeBob the Musical has a little something for everyone. The adults I was seated near enjoyed it as much as their children. The undeniable surface charm on triumphant display as joyous and exuberant as the character himself. As this is an out of town run, the only thing that needs additional attention before the New York opening is tweaking an anticlimactic ending. The story fizzles out when it should be at its most triumphant, the resolution here as satisfying as a metaphorical burp. That may work as closure for a cartoon on a television screen, but I craved more. At $100 plus a seat in a New York theater, so will that audience. Saving the cartoon’s signature theme song for curtain call is a way to make certain both the character, super fan, Patchy the Pirate (Jason Michael Snow) and the audience leaves with a smile. With a remarkably talented and diverse cast, dazzling visuals and great promise, The SpongeBob Musical is on its way to a successful Broadway run.
The SpongeBob Musical is now playing at the Oriental Theater through July 12, 2016