Theater review by Adam Feldman
Are you ready? The splashy new Broadway musical SpongeBob SquarePants, whose arrival was greeted in some circles with sneers of anticipatory derision, turns out to be a joy. Like its irrepressible yellow hero, played by the peppy and limber-limbed Ethan Slater, the show is unabashedly committed to imagination and dorky enthusiasm. As SpongeBob and his squirrel friend, Sandy (Lilli Cooper), labor to save their undersea town—the cheekily named Bikini Bottom—from a local volcano, the wonders of Tina Landau’s production pour from the stage in a ravishing stream of color and invention that sucks you into its merry, silly currents.
Adapted by Kyle Jarrow from Nickelodeon’s popular cartoon, the show takes time to find its sea legs. The introductory sequences seem squarely aimed at kids, and there are early weak spots in the eclectic score, which comprises original songs by pop stars including the Flaming Lips, Panic! at the Disco, T.I., Lady Antebellum and John Legend (plus a David Bowie tune from the 1990s). But music supervisor Tom Kitt manages to bring them all into the same world, sometimes with magical results. In a gospel number by Yolanda Adams, “Super Sea Star Savior,” SpongeBob’s indolent starfish pal, Patrick (Danny Skinner), is hilariously worshipped by a cult of sardines. And Gavin Lee, as SpongeBob’s dour neighbor Squidward, gets the takeaway musical number of 2017. In the fantasy Broadway showstopper “I’m Not a Loser”—choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and ingeniously crafted by They Might Be Giants to reflect Squidward’s Negative Nelly mind-set—Lee performs dazzling four-legged tap routines, surrounded by a chorus line of fluffy pink sea anemones.
A gender-fluid, polyethnic ensemble keeps the energy high as the story winds toward a climax that celebrates friendship and cooperation, with pro-science and pro-immigrant messages tossed in for good measure. But what send the show soaring are David Zinn’s sensational costumes and set, which includes Rube Goldberg–esque contraptions on each side of the stage. (It's like what everyone wanted but didn't get at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) In delightful ways, the design retains homemade-looking elements; the volcano, for example, is made of piled-up boxes, like something a creative kid might come up with. In the end, SpongeBob succeeds because Landau and Zinn make even the most complicated musical staging look and feel like child’s play. It wants you to have fun. Soak it in.
Palace Theatre (Broadway). Book by Kyle Jarrow. Music and lyrics by various artists. Directed by Tina Landau. With Ethan Slater, Lilli Cooper, Danny Skinner, Gavin Lee. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.