Category: NYC

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.

Perhaps in the entirety of human history, never before have the phrases “Christmas music” and “electrifying” existed in the same sentence. Home for the Holidays completely breaks precedent.

The premise of the show is so simple that it’s genius: put an American Idol winner, an America’s Got Talent winner, and a winner of The Voice on stage together, and then — wait for it — have them all sing Christmas carols together. What you get is your favorite Christmas album on steroids, live to boot.

Visually, the show is stunning. Boughs of holly deck the halls of August Wilson Theatre, and the stage itself looks like a Broadway-ified winter wonderland, with five sleek metal Christmas trees standing tall and shimmering under the neon lights. A multi-level staircase platform stands on top of the stage, allowing the band to play right behind the front-stage singers while remaining ever in full sight — a spectacular way to showcase saxophone solo after trumpet solo after saxophone solo while the audience catches its breath between choruses.

As beautiful as the show looks, the real gem, of course, is the music, and each singer really brings his or her own special something to the classics. American Idol’s Candice Glover, of course, effortlessly delivers her famous R&B runs and riffs. The Voice’s Josh Kaufman also comes in strong, infusing the old-timey carols with his signature blues sound. Bianca Ryan from America’s Got Talent, in turn, really maximizes her theatrical voice to remind the audience at every stop that they are, in fact, on Broadway.

For the most part, I found that the three titans of American music demonstrated great musical rapport, harmonizing beautifully and playing off of each other to bring the music to new heights. However, there were some moments when their competitive sides seemed to take over — perhaps national singing champions can’t help but steal the spotlight, or perhaps this was actually a choreographed demonstration of just how much they could each blow us away with their impossible-sounding vocal stunts.

A word of warning: this show is not for the faint of heart. If you like your Christmas music pure and simple, go put your earbuds in and listen to Elvis, Michael Buble, or Mariah Carey. Even I found that, as much as I loved the show, no single number was my all-time favorite rendition, likely because the impressiveness of it all actually distracted from the nostalgia that Christmas music usually brings in bucketloads. However, if you like your Christmas music electrifying — or even if you think you might — definitely run and go see Home for the Holidays before it’s too late. Even if you end up liking your go-to album better, you certainly won’t regret this one.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

When Dina (played by Katrina Lenk) beautifully sings “Welcome to Nowhere,” a song introducing the audience to the show’s location, she doesn’t portray it to be one of the most exciting places. In fact, she goes so far as to sing “Such a city, nobody knows it. Not a fun, not an art, nor a culture. This is Bet Hativka.”

And her character is right: this show, like it repeatedly describes, is a simple story about how ‘’Once not long ago group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Yet, in this charming 95-minute show, audiences are thrust into a story that is so simple yet so complex, just like the human experience. Indeed, like life, the show begins with a slow start, in which we are introduced to the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt, which, due to a misunderstanding of their final destination, end up spending a night in Bet Hatikva rather than Petah Tikva.

Stuck in a new place with nothing else to do, we see these strangers begin to connect. Part of the experience of meeting new people is finding out more about them: at first, you don’t know much about each other, but as time goes on, you learn more and begin to feel more for one another. The same is true for characters in shows. While The Band’s Visit eventually introduces us to all of its characters, unfortunately, we only get to really know a few. As the show progresses, though, we see extraordinary songs and heart-wrenching moments from most of the characters that, when the characters we as the audience get to know are involved, leave us tearful and filled with emotion.

For the characters we don’t get know as well, moments of truth — revealed in admittedly beautiful songs — can be a little confusing. Why does the man who waits by the telephone wait so obsessively for his girlfriend to call, to the point of being agitated when someone else uses the phone? Just because he misses her? Knowing nothing about this man except that he waits and waits and waits, it felt as if his behavior fell closer in line with someone who is unhealthily obsessed rather than in love. While this too can be part of the human experience, it was frustrating to see this moment aggrandized as it leads into the final grand moment of the show in which the entire cast harmonizes beautifully, singing about longing, love, and human connection. If we had gotten to know this man better, perhaps the final wouldn’t have felt as if it came out of nowhere.

That being said, the final song (“Answer Me”) is still beautiful in its own right, highlighting the show’s strongest component: its music. With lyrics and composition by David Yazbeck, every song pulls at the heart, making you laugh and leaving you contemplating your own desires. Each song is stunning and invites the audience members into the moment, allowing them to connect with the music on a personal level, even if they’re not familiar with the musical style, which is inspired by Arabic culture — something rarely seen on Broadway.

In a time that feels incredibly divisive, this production shows that, despite differences in our languages, our backgrounds, and our heritages, we all still are united in one human experience. We still all have a desire to love and be answered, and The Band’s Visit is such an important musical because it reminds us of just that. Rather than focusing on gaudy, ostentatious sets, colors, and music, it strips down these elements and focuses on the simple, the ordinary. This ordinariness actually produces something  unique and extraordinary, and, accordingly, the show should be seen by all.

Tickets to The Band’s Visit can be purchased from the show’s website.

Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love for The Tulips, I Pray Forever, 2012. Photo: Yayoi Kusama/Courtesy of David Zwirner, NY/Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai/Victoria Miro, London

 

Running through December 16th, the David Zwirner Gallery is hosting two exhibits of Yayoi Kusama’s installations: Festival of Life, in their Chelsea gallery, and Infinity Nets in their new Upper East side location.

Kusama is best known for her Infinity Rooms, a set of rooms which she creates using mirrors and various lights and objects and which are absolutely astonishing and the perfect place for an Instagram photo. Her works are bright, simple, and brilliant. In all of them, the viewer is enveloped into what feel like new worlds that they do not expect.

With the launch of the new exhibition in New York, writers Cindy Liu and Will Essilfie visited the Chelsea gallery. Here are their thoughts:

CINDY LIU

Visiting the iconic Yayoi Kusama’s newest New York exhibit installation is akin to reading a book with deliciously-quirky characters, a refreshingly-unpredictable plot, and more sensory overload than one knows how to absorb. In her paintings and sculptures, Kusama has an uncanny knack for pairing bold, brash colors in ways that are often disorienting at first, but undeniably charismatic the more one’s eyes travel across the surfaces. Her canvases ask her audience to approach the art percussively: with the openness to absorb the punches of turquoise, the flashes of Shrek green. Her sculpture is both fluid and jagged, confronting the purported delicacy of the flowers that often inspire them.

A panoramic of Kusama’s gallery.

The highlight of the show, of course, are Kusama’s infinity rooms, frustratingly transient (visitors are timed to experience the rooms for thirty seconds to one minute) and exhilaratingly immersive. Entering Let’s Survive Together, the first in the Chelsea galleries, is similar to descending in a submarine deep into the depths of some silver-laced ocean. The orbs that dangle from the ceilings, extend for millennia in the mirrors, and litter the ground seem to muffle the outside world; and indeed, this seems to be Kusama’s primary project: to create a landscape that becomes her audience’s mindscape. With All My Love for the Tulips, the next room in the collection, is more lighthearted and psychedelic, a playful contrast to the meditative, cooler Let’s Survive Together.

 

WILL ESSILFIE

Visiting the Festival of Life exhibit, it was clear how dedicated Kusama is to delivering an intimate experience. For the first of the two Infinity Rooms on display, Let’s Survive Together, only six people are allowed in at a time for exactly one minute (the staff at the exhibit have timers). The room is dazzling with large silver spheres all around you. As you explore the room, it feels like you’re floating around the galaxy in a very surreal experience. Both Cindy and I were in awe as we walked around the room and got to experience the hype of Kusama’s galleries. It was an memorable experience that is almost impossible to describe in photos alone.

Cindy and Will experience Let’s Survive Together together.

After your minute in the room is over, visitors are next sent to see With All My Love for the Tulips, a room covered in polka dots and gigantic flowers towering over you. It’s a breathtaking experience and amazing sight to see.

In With All My Love for the Tulips, Cindy and Will show their love for the tulips by snapping a quick picture together in the exhibit.

Finally, you are able to explore a large collection of Kusama’s paintings in a giant gallery. A lot of them are quite bold and beautiful, and they are amazing to see. As we explored this space, we saw many guests using the paintings as the perfect backdrop for their new profile pictures and others staring at pieces in awe of the vast range of Kusama’s skills in creating art across both 2D and 3D dimensions. This exhibit is amazing and definitely something to check out if you have the time.  

 


Tickets are free to both exhibitions, but lines can get long — especially for viewing the Chelsea galleries’ Infinity Rooms (around 2-4 hours). For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.

Composing the Missa Solemnis

Instead of a usual review, TD writes fifteen fragments. These are refractions of TD’s consciousness during listening. Judgments are to be interpreted as culminations of preceding, unwritten descriptions.

1. The Swedish Radio Choir rises and falls as a unit. Natural and pleasant, like a sleeping baby’s belly.

2. After Beethoven finished the Missa Solemnis in 1823, he wrote to Karl XIV, the king of Sweden, to cajole him into purchasing a copy. Beethoven penned two epistles, one in February and one in March. The king did not respond to either. In this performance, these Swedes answer Beethoven’s request.

3. Wow, this Kyrie! Sustained unisons resound with power. Despite movement, they seem static. The divine is immovable and motionless.

4. Beethoven: “For God, Time absolutely does not exist.”

5. Dausgaard conducts with reserved dignity. He expends just enough energy to get his desired result. Nothing is superfluous.

6. I picture how this would sound in a cathedral.

7. Michael Weinius’s movements are unpleasant. He shakes his music with despair, as if in need of literal salvation. Apparently, he enjoys Beethoven.

8. These sopranos sound like dying birds. Their staccatos are clipped and comical. They need depth to match the Credo’s message.

9. Dausgaard automates a magnificent swell in the chorus. He pricks a delicate ribbon and pulls it outward. Solemn, subterranean vibrations to boisterous exultance.

10. Whereas Weinius sounds like an overblown opera star, Malin Christensson, the soprano, transmits the divine. Pristine and peaceful, like immovable lake water in the Canadian Rockies. Repentance soars in beautiful legato.

11. Beethoven: “In the upper registers, the soprano, too, can demonstrate inner calm and joy as the evidence of peace.”

12. The famous Incarnatus. Processional dignity morphs into solemn piety. Alto soloist enters with care. A flute tries to soar over the strings. It ultimately breaks through. Ignaz Seyfried, a Viennese composer and colleague of Beethoven’s, thought that the flute was heaven’s messenger in the Annunciation.
13. Thunderous applause congratulated the mass’s Viennese premiere. Beethoven heard nothing.

14. New Yorkers, who are all critics, tend to support foreign ensembles more than the New York Phil. As evidence, a great celebration greeted the performers. They definitely heard it.

15. Dausgaard gently releases his grip on “Eleison”– and its sound flutters away. I am sad to see it go.