Sunday, December 10, 2017

126 (2017-2018): Review: SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS (seen December 8, 2017)

“Oh, What Joy, For Every Girl and Boy”

Bikini Bottom, home of the characters in SpongeBob SquarePants, Broadway’s newest “family” spectacle, may not have an octopus’s garden in the shade but it does have a fabulous octopus—albeit with only six limbs—named Squidward Q. Tentacles. And while Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden” isn’t part of the score, there are plenty of other, mostly new, songs by a raft of iconic musicians, like Cindy Lauper and John Legend, to buoy this bubbly concoction throughout its two-and-a-half hours of seaworthy fun.

Ethan Slater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Reportedly, 10 years went into fashioning this $20 million Broadway fishstravaganza (following a 2016 Chicago premiere), with a book by Keith Jarrow based on Nickelodeon’s enormously popular (and profitable in the billions) animated series. Born in 1999 as the brainchild of marine biologist/artist Stephen Hillenburg (now suffering from ALS), it became an international sensation, inspiring two feature films (with another one coming).

Now, under the ingenious guidance of director and co-conceiver Tina Landau, this tidal wave of nautical nonsense has turned the Palace Theatre into an eyepoppingly colorful seascape filled with subaquatic life ranging from petite plankton to lumbering leviathans.

Landau, having discovered the buried treasure in the original’s free-spirited, anarchic, good-natured heart, has done a whale of a job with a team of brilliant designers: David Zinn for the sets and costumes, Kevin Adams for the lighting, Peter Nigrini for the projections, Walter Trarbach for sound, Charles G. LaPointe for the hair, and Joe Dulude II for the makeup. Also making a big splash are Tom Kitts’s orchestrations/arrangements and Christopher Gatelli’s choreography.

The venerable Palace has been turned into an aquatic paradise, the auditorium lined with shiny blue streamers, and each side of the proscenium fitted with its own huge, unique, Rube Goldberg-like contraption for shooting boulders, big and small. Part of the orchestra is hidden in the pit, a small team of musicians sits at audience right, and Foley artist Mike Dobson performs at audience left. On stage, within a brilliantly lit arch, an array of imaginative props—I loved the Slinky-like, expanding couch—keep offering surprises as the scenic effects grow ever more elaborate.
The company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Zinn’s costumes tone down the characters’ more abstract, cartoon elements, abandoning prosthetics in favor of human qualities. For example, the eternally positive SpongeBob (Ethan Slater), a kitchen sponge, is a young man in tight, yellow shirt and too-short, plaid, suspendered pants, with nothing sponge-like about him, while his doofus starfish friend, Patrick (Danny Skinner), is a chubby guy in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt with a swept-up, blonde hairdo, his hands human instead of the original’s fingerless stumps.
Lilly Cooper, Ethan Slater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s nothing squirrelly about Sandy Cheeks, the squirrel scientist from Texas, whose usual diving bubble headgear (squirrels can’t breathe underwater) is replaced by an afro hairstyle. Eugene Krebs (Brian Ray Norton) is more human than crab except for his huge, boxing glove-like claws. The size-challenged Sheldon Plankton is seen as both a tiny puppet and a full-grown villain (Wesley Taylor) in a shiny green suit and ponytail. And Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu), just a computer on the series, now is accompanied by an actual person. 

On the other fin, Gary, Patrick’s meowing pet snail, is a rolling puppet. Among the others are the Electric Skates, punk rockers on skateboards and roller skates, the bespectacled Sardine Corps, a chorus of pink jellyfish, and other delectable denizens of the deep.
Danny Skinner, Ethan Slater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I suspect many spectators will best appreciate Squidward, a slim fellow in a bluish wig, orange jersey, and green pants to which an additional two legs have been attached in such a clever way that they actually not only walk with the actor’s real legs but, in his remarkable show-stopping tap number, “I’m Not a Loser” (by They Might Be Giants), also dance. Just to see this classic showbiz routine is worth the price of admission.
Gavin Lee. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The cast is huge and hard-working, most of the supporting players taking on multiple roles as any number of marine species. Several of the principals, like Slater (who’s been part of the show’s development for years), Skinner, and Norris, are making their Broadway debut; all have taken to their assignments like fish to water.
Wesley Taylor and the company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The series’ most familiar relationships and situational conflicts (like the restaurant rivalry between the Krusty Krab and Chum Bucket proprietors, Eugene Krebs and Sheldon Plankton) have been included in a plot about how SpongeBob saves Bikini Bottom from an erupting volcano. As the tension builds, the citizens take refuge on a sunken ship, an increasingly anxious anchorman Perch Perkins (Kelvin Moon Loh) reminds us of how much time is left, and a countdown clock ticks away.
The company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Staged with unceasing zest, including numerous entrances down the aisles (be sure to look first if you have to leave from an aisle seat) and a confetti-covered, audience beach ball party, SpongeBob SquarePants defies you to be bored. Each musical selection—the original ones (like Jonathan Coulton’s “Bikini Bottom Day”), the familiar ones (like “No Control,” by David Bowie and Brian Eno), and the series’ “The SpongeBob Theme Song,” which ends the show—fits the material perfectly. 

Yet, even within all the nutty behavior and childish antics, a few adult-oriented thematic points are made, with satirical harpoons aimed at those who decry the untrustworthy media, the presence of outsiders, or the value of science. As someone says, “Next she’ll tell us tidal warming is real!”

Before seeing SpongeBob SquarePants I couldn’t resist feeling it was going to be mindless entertainment. I’d watched only a little of it in preparation for seeing the show and found it a little too fishy for my taste. My granddaughter, however, a 26-year-old high school English teacher, was thrilled to accompany me. She’d been watching the series for years and was overwhelmed by how perfectly the musical captured the essentials of the characters and situations she’d grown to love.

But, even without much experience as a viewer, I had no trouble recognizing that a show of such expressive vitality, visual ingenuity, vibrant musicality, and consistently exceptional performances was in no way mindless; if anything, it’s mind-blowing! Why be a SpongeBob sponge snob when SpongeBob SquarePants is so absorbing?


Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway, NYC
Open run