At last, a musical version of the SpongeBob family of characters who first appeared in a film cartoon in 1999. The title character and his friends have always lived in the fictional underwater city of Bikini Bottom, and they’ve been so popular with their fans that they’ve become among the highest rated series on Nickelodeon. It has spawned two feature films, one in 2004 and a sequel in 2015. As late as 2017, the media franchise had generated $13 billion in merchandising revenue for the network.
Director Tina Landau (Superior Donuts, Bells Are Ringing) conceived and directed the SpongeBob SquarePants musical with a team that includes Kyle Jarrow on book, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies)–all using Stephen Hillenburg’s animated television series as a foundation. In a most unusual move, the score was composed by a consortium of pop composers including Cyndi Lauper, Tom Kitt, David Bowie, Jonathan Coulton, and a host of others. The musical first appeared in 2016 in Chicago, and now here it is at the Palace Theatre on Broadway where I believe it will remain for as long as there are families with kids similar to those who have kept Annie, Oliver!, and The Lion King lighting up theatres for the past fifty years.
Personally, I had only the vaguest acquaintanceship with Bob and his playmates when I entered the theatre last night. I had expected a disconnect between me and the folks of Bikini Bottom, for we’d never met before, and I’m not emotionally connected to the rock school of music, though I greatly admired orchestrator-arranger Tom Kitt’s score for Next to Normal. To cut to the quick, all my misgivings flew out the door the moment newcomer Ethan Slater showed up as a very human SpongeBob, which was about a minute into the opening number, appropriately called Bikini Bottom Day, during which we were introduced to Patrick Star, Sandy Cheeks, Eugene Krabs, and all the other delightful inhabitants of the Bottom.
Wildly and colorfully set and costumed by David Zinn, smartly lit by Kevin Adams, with sound subtly enhanced by Walt Trarbach, I realized this was not going to be a kiddie show; this was going to be a Ziegfeld extravaganza that is determined to make a big top circus look dingy and to make us so-called experienced theatergoers aware from the start that the show will tickle the kids in the audience but would have a lot for us to marvel at as well.
To start at the top, there is Slater. Remarkably enough, as the title character he is making his Broadway debut. Slater’s energy is boundless, yet he never seems to tire, and he delivers star quality from start to finish. Though I relish the thought of him in anything from Pal Joey to Follies, by the time he abandons SpongeBob, he may be too old for either one. Welcome, Mr. Slater and please promise you’ll stick with theater as you move on with your career.
There are others who manage to join Ethan Slater in stopping the show. Gavin Lee as “Squidward” does a tap routine with four legs (don’t ask – he just happens to have four) and a chorus line of Sea Anemones that earns cheers. Lilli Cooper as “Sandy Cheeks” joins SpongeBob for Chop to the Top; Danny Skinner as “Patrick Star” even manages to bring pathos to the table by joining Bob in I Guess I Miss You. These are just samples of the level of performance that is present all evening. Scenically, the feelings of earthquakes which threaten Bikini Bottom, the danger of an erupting volcano, the beauty of a sunny day under water, are all there on stage. Projection designer Peter Nigrini helps to deliver falling rocks and giant boulders rolling into the sea to add to the visual delights of the evening.
The music coordinators Michael Keller and Michael Aarons have managed to make a score composed by literally dozens of writers’ sounds as though only one team was involved. It’s not a memorable score, but it is easy on the ears, always tinkly and pleasant. The story is a simple one: Bob has to find a way to save his hometown from possible destruction, and that’s about all there is to that. The show takes on the color of a revue more than a book show, but I don’t think that much matters. It’s imaginatively colorful and performed by a marvelous company under the endless invention of Ms. Landau and Mr. Gattelli. Leave whatever intellect you may possess in the cloakroom, take a deep breath, and sit yourself down for 2 l/2 hours of great fun in Bikini Bottom.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.