Debuting in Chicago on his way to a Broadway bow, SpongeBob is already an absorbing stage star.
Part of the charm of SpongeBob SquarePants, that waterlogged optimist who’s been a Nickelodeon star since 1999, is his nearly unflappable positivity. SpongeBob really believes that every single day in Bikini Bottom is the best day ever. You and I know, of course, that not every show can similarly be the best show ever. But I’d venture that The SpongeBob Musical, a strikingly inventive piece born of both corporate interests and a markedly motley creative team, is at this point very darn good.
The show’s concept, as co-crafted by director Tina Landau and book writer Kyle Jarrow, is that Bikini Bottom, the undersea township that SpongeBob and friends call home, is under threat from a long-dormant volcano that squirrel scientist Sandy Cheeks predicts is about to erupt. While residents including Squidward, Mr. Krabs and Sheldon Plankton deal with the crisis in their own ways, SpongeBob, Sandy and Patrick Star set out to save the day.
Landau and Jarrow have done an impressive job of capturing the voices of these preexisting characters without feeling too slavishly imitative. Much of the credit goes to the fascinating scenic design by David Zinn (who just won his first Tony Award for The Humans), which incorporates everyday objects to create a feel that’s both DIY and immersive (including a pair of gigantic, functioning Rube Goldberg contraptions just for the hell of it).
Zinn also designed the costumes, which wittily suggest the characters’ screen versions without subsuming the actors’ humanity. And the cast is terrific: Newcomers Danny Skinner and Lilli Cooper confidently embody Patrick and Sandy, respectively, even if they could each use a little more to do, while Gavin Lee, who earned a Tony nomination for tap-dancing upside-down in Mary Poppins, gets to tap with four legs in Squidward’s rousing 11 o’clock number.
But the show rests on the young shoulders of Ethan Slater, who’s played SpongeBob through years of workshops with the musical and will make his Broadway debut in the role if all goes according to plan. Much of the magic that Landau, Jarrow, Zinn and choreographer Christopher Gattelli have stocked the show with relies on Slater’s elasticity, both in his gymnast’s physicality and his vocal acuity. If his emotional characterization still feels a little, well, two-dimensional, there’s time yet to work on that.
As for the show’s unusual score, with individual songs contributed by more than a dozen pop-music acts, it mostly works. Each song generally retains the flavor of its writer, in ways good and bad—the entry by Lady Antebellum sounds like country-pop, the Plain White T’s number sounds like a Plain White T’s ballad, and you don’t have to check your program to know that the gospel number is the one by Yolanda Adams.
That results in an appreciable variety, but also means the songs don’t speak to each other as much as they might in a more traditional, single-composer score. (One can only imagine the yeoman’s work done by music supervisor and orchestrator Tom Kitt to keep the show’s sound consistent.) Overall, though, the chosen songwriters (who also include Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, Panic! At the Disco, The Flaming Lips and They Might Be Giants among others) bring a theatrical mindset to their own work; blended here with contributions from a thoroughly diverse team, they add up to a surprisingly absorbing show.
Oriental Theatre. Book by Kyle Jarrow. Music by various artists. Co-conceived and directed by Tina Landau. With Ethan Slater, Nick Blaemire, Lilli Cooper, Carlos Lopez, Danny Skinner, Gavin Lee. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.