Category: Reviews

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.

My previous column was all about the cultural importance of Star Wars as the quintessential modern myth. I even mentioned the need for myth in these troubled times, insinuating my desire for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to acknowledge, or comment on, the current political climate in some capacity. And so, having now watched it, I ask: how good was it, and how does it hold as a modern myth?

To begin, much of the progressivism from The Force Awakens is carried over here, and is given much more room to breathe in some instances, as in Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) excursion to Cantonica, a desert planet run by greedy, corporate, casino-obsessed profiteers who benefit from the galactic war between the First Order and the Resistance. As many reviews have been quick to point out, this arc is easy to bait as a digressing rambling point, though this is most attributable not to the narrative intentions of the arc, but rather the lackluster execution of these explorations which at times threaten to inspire a blatant indifference on the audience’s part. From the moment Rose begins telling her sob backstory, which then leads into a preachy animal-rights midnight exodus extravaganza, the narrative feels forced and progressive for the sake of being progressive—in short, it feels inauthentic.

I should stress that this lack of authenticity exists strictly on a formal level, by which I mean the film was admittedly doing some interesting things in theory. This includes the incorporation of Star Wars canon material previously unseen on the big screen (How did Luke get there?), the subversion of myth by questioning its authenticity, and the fabrication of a triadic collective protagonist (Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren). However, most reviews that have defended The Last Jedi have tended to rely on these novel narrative deviations to the Star Wars canon as sufficient evidence for the film’s artistic merit, the equivalent of arguing Pollock’s early works as redeemable insofar as they are “dense with mythology and Jungian archetypes” or that James Joyce is a genius on the basis that UlyssesLike many great works of literature…requires repeated reading and deep study fully to understand–and ultimately to enjoy–the many dimensions and layers.” All this is well and fine, but I would argue that the formal ramifications of a work of art (i.e. revolutionary or revisionist technique), or its utter abstruseness, are not enough to warrant—indeed, even measure—artistic merit. Hence, to defend The Last Jedi by way of uttering such generalizations as “The movie works equally well as an earnest adventure full of passionate heroes and villains and a meditation on sequels and franchise properties” is not enough; I mean, sure, but, where specifically do you see this being done well, and, more importantly, how are you measuring “well”?

I would narrow down my problems with this movie to one pivotal, overarching problem that effectively ruined all of the things that could have worked for the film: pacing. By this I mean not only the editing from one plot to another, but the consistent incorporation of “tonal distractions,” both of which, collectively, forbid any one point in the story to breathe and really come into its own. One result of this is that, unlike The Force Awakens, the film no longer feels character-based—the word “feels” is crucial here as the narrative was evidently attempting to darken and flesh out three of its main characters: Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker. This sophistication had the potential to be the holy grail of the film’s engagement, but, whenever this character-building is at play, it is superfluously embroidered by these aforementioned tonal distractions, whether it’s Luke tricking Rey into “using the force” with a blade of grass, Kylo Ren being shirtless (but why?), or a Pog face-planting into a window during what should be a serious rescue scene on the planet Crait. It’s as if Robert Altman had been hired to write a Star Wars movie and immediately decided to Nashville the sh!+ out of it.

The thing is (and this gets to the heart of why I abhor Robert Altman films) the film medium is temporally built to sustain a well-chosen economy of narrative if it has any hopes of fabricating and sustaining any degree of emotional investment. Shows like Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black have shown that the serial format is much more compatible with large ensemble casts because they are given the room to be explored in an organic and engaging way. When condensing these kaleidoscopic endeavors into a film, much of the emotional weight is lost in favor for what essentially amounts to “interesting ideas”: the philosophy underlying Luke’s cynicism, Rey’s development as a Jedi (we are given some “shocking” background story, but how does this affect her character? She’s still on the good side at the end [I almost wanted her to go to the dark side, just to shake things up]), or Kylo Ren’s inner conflict (which, again, amounts to nothing—he is still the “bad guy” at the end of the film).

While The Last Jedi does not have a terribly high amount of plots and characters, it does incessantly move from one thing we are meant to be taking seriously to another, a system which amounts to the same thing: the dilution of the audience’s emotional investment. Sure, much of the frantic pacing works for the fresh new theme of “let the past die, look to the future” which may in fact be commenting on the generally pessimistic milieu of our times, and whose newness does manage to “keep the myth interesting, and hence relevant” as I mentioned in my last column. However, The Last Jedi is revisionism done wrong, in the vein of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where a lot of interesting things are going down without succeeding in making us care. This is in sharp contrast to the much more cogent (and also revisionist) The Dark Knight, or The Empire Strikes Back. Recall how much time we spend following Luke’s training with Yoda in Episode V, or Rey the scavenger-for-parts at the beginning of The Force Awakens. These are some of my favorite moments in the franchise, and the reason they work is because we’re there for a while, to the point where the depicted world begins to feel organic, our own—thus paving the way for emotional investment.

If anything, The Last Jedi has compelled me to familiarize myself to a much greater extent with the Star Wars canon. Through my current efforts to understand just what in the world was happening in the film, I might eventually be able to tame my currently lashing and thrashing response to such a degree that the film may not appear as messy and improvised as it does now. Who knows, a year from now—maybe less—I may even like it.

After weeks of ignoring her begging, I went with my roommate to see Thor: Ragnarok. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see the movie (Marvel films are actually my guilty pleasure), but I didn’t want to spend the ridiculous amount of money that is New York theater prices to see a film I thought I could predict in its entirety. I had a pretty strong feeling about how the movie was gonna go: we’d start with a dramatic scene where Thor’s at a low-point, then the film’s villain would inspire him to get his act together, and he’d reunite with some random Avenger to defeat whoever was threatening Asgard this time around. Interspersed would be some jokes about his abnormally attractive body, his villainous brother Loki, and of course Marvel’s typical sexual innuendos. I knew it would be entertaining, but also extremely predictable.

So when I sat down in the theater, I was surprised by the film I saw. Don’t get me wrong, I had indeed predicted the general plotline, but something about Thor: Ragnarok was different. Rather than being interspersed throughout, the jokes were continuous and quite upfront. From the very first scene (where Thor was indeed at a low-point), Chris Hemsworth’s superhero was cracking jokes left and right. His relationship with Loki took on a more humorous tone than ever before, and even the villain (Thor’s sister Hela) cracked a joke every now and again.

Even in the movie’s darkest and most serious moments, the characters were joking around. As I watched, it felt a little off-putting: why would Thor and the Hulk joke about the fate of millions of people? Why couldn’t the writers be serious for just one second? I came out of the theater feeling a bit uneasy; sure, the film was hilarious and most definitely entertaining–but what just happened? In an earlier column, I praised this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming for its jokes and for creating a lighter and more entertaining superhero movie than DC’s Wonder Woman. But it seems like Marvel took my feedback and dialed it up, like, five thousand percent.

Earlier this week, Marvel released its trailer for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, set to be released in two parts- one in 2018 and one in 2019. The trailer is typical of Marvel’s superhero universe, and only features one joke at the end of the preview–more like what I had been expecting from Thor: Ragnarok. And the trailer wasn’t released without its own drama: news that Avengers frontrunners like Chris Evans (Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), and Scarlett Johansson’s (Black Widow) contracts are up after the film releases is sending every superhero-fan into a frenzy. Is this the last Avengers film? Will Marvel try to continue the Avengers franchise without its stars?

In interviews, Marvel CEO Kevin Feige has said that Marvel intends to continue the franchise with or without its stars, but that Infinity War will definitely mark the end of a particular era in the Avengers universe. And with Thor: Ragnarok shifting so dramatically in its approach, I am left wondering: is this lighter tone Marvel’s new take? And how will that work? Will it work?

Now don’t get me wrong: the fate of the superhero genre is not in danger. People will keep paying to see attractive men and women (although far too few women admittedly) save the world while cracking a joke about it. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it makes us feel good. But where Marvel has succeeded (and where, I would argue, DC hasn’t) is in making these feel-good movies into films with real quality. Previous Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Avengers movies are all actually good movies. And that’s because they mix action and humor effortlessly, and invite the audience to feel close to their heroes. But when Marvel decided to focus solely on the humor in Thor: Ragnarok, they lost their appeal (at least to me). And if they continue on in this way, they may find themselves losing at the very genre they brought to the forefront of American cinema ten years ago.

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.