SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical looks and feels like a kindergartner’s acid trip.
This isn’t a bad thing.
The show contains so many side plots that it can be a bit overwhelming to keep up. The main conflict involves the impending eruption of Mount Humongous, which threatens to destroy Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob’s beloved home. That said, the narrative also explores themes of friendship, chiefly between our three main heroes, SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy, as well as themes of discrimination and community.
Also, there’s an apocalyptic death cult, a charity concert headlined by a skateboarding, “California bro” version of KISS, and a sub-arc dealing with anti-mammalian hate speech directed at Sandy.
I’ll admit that I was a bit terrified when Nickelodeon first announced that this show was coming to Broadway. So many screen-to-stage musical adaptations have fallen flat in so many different ways: tacky costumes (The Little Mermaid, Shrek: The Musical); confused plotting; musical scores that fall short of the original score (Mary Poppins). Fortunately, SpongeBob steers clear of these pitfalls, for the most part.
For one thing, there’s the psychedelic aesthetic. Shrek: The Musical, this ain’t: David Zinn’s costumes have the headlining actors unencumbered by prostheses, free to move about the stage (and move they do!). SpongeBob is not, in fact, wearing a sponge-suit; rather, his classic square, yellow silhouette is implied through clever, subtle touches: a yellow gingham shirt; plaid brown-and-yellow pants; suspenders; and, of course, his characteristic red tie. Sandy, a squirrel in the original cartoon, wears a white spacesuit-cum-tracksuit that also manages to give off a ‘70s vibe, while Patrick sports Hawaiian prints and hot pink tie-dye—and an extra-volumized pink pompadour to stand in for his starfish cone head. Squidward’s costume proved a particular audience delight: through an ingenious rigging mechanism, he has four feet (tentacles?) that walk, kick, and dance in unison. There was immediate laughter as soon as he walked onstage.
The ensemble, too, sports an abundance of… stuff: traffic cones, baubles, bubbles, blue-and-purple shag rugs rolled into tubes, skirts made of kitchen gloves, hats made of straws, boxing gloves that become crab claws. There’s no shortage of candy-colored eye candy to take in—every time you look more closely at an object, it becomes something else.
The set, also by Zinn, possesses equal whimsy. The proscenium is surrounded by two massive, neon-colored Rube Goldberg machines constructed of what appears to be industrial scaffolding twisted into geometric shapes. As the impending eruption draws near, these machines, through a complex chain reaction that involves, in turn, a bicycle, a rainbow umbrella, and a shopping cart, shoot “boulders” (orange balls) at our Bikini Bottom friends onstage.
That says something about the hodgepodge nature of the rest of the set. It’s a carefully constructed bricolage of children’s playthings (fun noodles that stand in for coral, inflatable pool toys, and boxes), and strings of sparkling streamers and balloons—all painted in varying neon-bright shades. This playfulness is present throughout the musical. Before the curtain goes up, we’re treated to a backdrop reminiscent of the geometric tiling at the bottom of a pool, atop which Peter Nigrini’s projections of schools of fish and a scuba diver delightfully set the undersea mood. In Act II, the aforementioned Mount Humongous is a series of stacked packing boxes extending to the top of the stage. When we finally see the volcano’s mouth, it’s represented through intertwining, orange ladders, evoking a spider’s web. What’s more, the set has so many different components that every scene becomes a surprise: the Krusty Krab is transformed into Mr. Krabs’ private money stash, actors pop out of boxes and industrial tubing that looks like trash onstage, and pieces of the set are flipped over to reveal an entirely different scene.
As for the music, the generic range wasn’t as jarring as I had expected going into a musical that boasts both the Flaming Lips and Panic! At the Disco as composers, among many, many others (14 different artists and musical teams contributed original music to the score, while musical coordinators Michael Keller and Michael Aarons tweaked the arrangements and Tom Kitt added transitional music, assuring that the songs flowed smoothly). “No Control,” which comes just after the Bikini Bottom denizens learn of their forthcoming doom, pulls out all the stops: the stage is washed in bright red lighting, fog fills the stage, lasers shoot off, and a ticking doomsday clock lingers, ominously, on stage left. Throughout, actors move in and out of panicked tableaux that always leave one or two characters spotlighted, highlighting individual, narrative-specific arcs within a song that its original composers, David Bowie and Brian Eno, doubtlessly had never envisioned including in a musical about a cartoon sea sponge.
There’s also a delightful Broadway send-up headlined by Squidward (Gavin Lee) in the middle of Act II, “I’m Not a Loser,” composed by They Might be Giants, replete with Broadway show tunery, pink glittery costumes, a full chorus line, and a four-legged tap number.
The cast’s high energy is what really sells the show. I can only imagine how exhausted Ethan Slater, who plays the titular SpongeBob, must be after every performance; he never stops moving. He has a spring in his step so tightly coiled that it seems like he’s launching himself into the air, he has the flexibility of an underwater invertebrate, and he keeps absolutely perfect timing with every sound effect (he squeaks with every step). During “Simple Sponge: Reprise,” he lithely climbs the latticework leading to Mt. Humongous’s volcanic mouth, and belts out convincingly earnest lines about redemption and friendship while dangling from the set—and, at times, sings while upside-down.
Danny Skinner’s Patrick Star provides a humorous counterpoint to Slater. While SpongeBob is flexible, bouncy, and enthusiastic, Patrick is slower (in both the mental and physical senses). Skinner delivers a number of one-liners with a lack of self-awareness and perfect comedic timing. The third member of the trio, Sandy (Lilli Cooper), provides a more grounded counterpoint. While the script doesn’t offer her as many funny lines, she makes the most of her role as a down-to-earth squirrel trying to reconcile SpongeBob and Patrick’s increasingly strained relationship.
Wesley Taylor’s Plankton at times reminded me of Robbie Rotten from LazyTown—he milks every minute of his stage time, especially in his rapport with his “Computer Wife,” Karen (played by Stephanie Hsu), serving up a playfully conniving villain.
Amongst the ensemble, Pearl Krabs (Jai’len Christine Li Josey) stands out. As Mr. Krabs’ daughter, she plays a whale who can wail: her high notes—which she executes with ineffable ease—add some gospel soul to what is otherwise a very pop-driven musical. And, at only 18 years old, she remains one to look out for.
Overall, it’s clear that Nickelodeon is capitalizing on its intellectual properties with this production, which also represents a challenge to Disney’s dominance in the beloved-film-to-musical adaptation arena (Disney currently has three shows on Broadway: The Lion King, Aladdin, and Frozen). With its first stage production, Nickelodeon now also seeks to capitalize on “family fun for all”-style entertainment. That said, it was apparent throughout the show that it was primarily marketed toward a young audience, despite some adult jokes designed to go over the heads of little ones, as well some humorous references to Broadway classics (the exodus from Bikini Bottom is sung-through with a rendition of “Bikini-tevka” in a nod to Fiddler on the Roof, while the chorus of Mr. Krabs’ ode to his cash, “Daddy Knows Best,” might sound familiar to some Cabaret fans).
“Poor Pirates,” (comp. Sara Bareilles) which opens Act II, is where the musical is most clearly targeted at kids; effectively, this is pre-show and intermission entertainment, meant to ease kids (and other fidgety members of the audience) back to the main event onstage. The intermission song in particular has no relevance to the plot at large, which is essentially about “pirate discrimination.” It seemed like some of the political references here were a bit misplaced (Patchy the Pirate, the number’s lead, yells “Yo ho, we won’t go” at one point). Nonetheless, this “adult kid” found it all very entertaining to watch.
Which brings me to my next point. SpongeBob also plays off of the nostalgia factor for Millennials and Gen-Z kids who grew up watching both the TV cartoon’s original run and subsequent re-runs. With the fast-pacing and the colorful world created onstage, however, parents (and others who didn’t necessarily see the original show) will also be entertained. In this sense, it’s fitting that the curtain call ends with the original cartoon’s theme song, which invoked a chorus of audience members to sing along (and with vigor, I might add).
For all its (many, many) moving parts, the show never drags, nor does it—as I had feared—become grating. Instead, SpongeBob proves a delight, both under the sea and on the Great White Way.