Lilli Cooper and Ethan Slater in ‘SpongeBob SquarePants.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Ryan Leeds
I misjudged the sponge.
After watching an early preview of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, I echoed the sentiment of one of the show’s most cynical characters, Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee). During the opening number, “Bikini Bottom Day,” the multi-limbed octopus dismisses the fun and frivolity surrounding him: “Another day, another migraine,” he says with disdain and contempt. After 20 minutes, I was in his corner. The visual aspect was overwhelming. David Zinn’s neon, bubble, and tinsel-filled set and costumes design, along with Kevin Adam’s bright lighting design seemed all too much. None of the jokes in Kyle Jarrow’s book landed and the frenetic, disjointed nature drove me to annoyance.
I returned to the Palace Theatre last week, hoping to have a different experience.
My hope was fulfilled. It’s obvious now that I (bad puns intended) needed to get my sea legs and stop being so crabby. While the third time might be a charm in many cases, it only took a second time to be washed away by this tidal wave of absolute joy.
Director Tina Landau’s conception of the mega-hit, animated Nickelodeon series (created by Stephen Hillenburg), is one of the most creative animation-to-stage adaptations I’ve seen.
Set in the underwater world of Bikini Bottom, it follows the adventures of SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) and his dimwitted, but loveable starfish best friend, Patrick Star (Danny Skinner). When a volcano threatens to destroy the town, the pair steps into action to thwart disaster.
With the help of their scientific land mammal friend, Sandy (Lilli Cooper), they hatch a plot to not only prevent destruction but to also overthrow the diabolical plans of arch-nemesis duo Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) and Karen the computer (Stephanie Hsu).
Although the plot is paper thin, there is much more here than meets the eye. Self-help advice is liberally dispensed in musical form from artists in all genres. Surprisingly, only Jonathan Coulton’s opener and Squidward’s show-stopping “I’m Not a Loser” have the flavor of traditional Broadway. Otherwise, folk, hip-hop, pop, country, soul, and even gospel provide an eclectic palette of song—and each of them is fantastic.
The jaw-dropping line-up of contributors to the score reads like a who’s who list of music industry heavy hitters: Yolanda Adams, Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, T.I., Domani & Lil’C, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum, and John Legend are just a few of the artists who pitched in, creating an original cast recording that is catchy and contagious.
The musical variety is just one of the many things that makes this show a genuine crowd-pleaser. The energy that this supremely talented cast gives is beyond electric. Furthermore, many of them are making their Broadway debut.
Casting directors could not have found a more ideal actor for the title character in Ethan Slater. This red-headed wonder, dressed in a yellow vest, red tie and plaid shorts, is the perfect embodiment of the cartoon. His movements and speaking voice are matched with exact precision. Slater displays even more talent when he sings, particularly in “(Just A) Simple Sponge.” It’s highly likely that this Broadway newbie will be in demand following his stint in the SpongeBob spotlight.
Skinner is also a newcomer. In spite of his character’s laziness and naiveté, he is obviously an intelligent and gifted performer. The rousing and inspirational “Super Sea Star Savior” is enough to make the staunchest atheist shout Hallelujah. In both look and comic timing, it’s hard not to draw a comparison to the late John Candy.
Stage vets Lee, Cooper, and Taylor are each in their elements and have their moments to shine—specifically Lee, who perpetually hungers for a chance to prove himself to the town of Bikini Bottom.
Sound design is often overlooked by critics, but it would be unfair to omit Mike Dobson from contributing to the show’s enjoyment. This Foley designer manages to capture every squeak, squish, and squirm of every character in real time.
I’m glad I dove in and gave SpongeBob SquarePants a second chance and will end with this simple piece of advice: Don’t resist this gem. Admire the hard work, creativity and energy that went into it, and I’ll bet you’ll leave the Palace Theatre with a smile that even Times Square can’t contain.
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical
1564 Broadway, NYC
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.