A Broadway musical about a kitchen sponge who lives in a discarded piece of fruit at the bottom of the ocean… Sounds crazy, no?
From the outset, turning the world of Nickelodeon's long-running animated series SpongeBob SquarePants into a Broadway musical sounded like an insane proposition. Now, throw in 16 big-name songwriters ranging from David Bowie to T.I., as well as visionary, avant-garde director Tina Landau, and the result, onstage at the Palace Theatre, is nothing short of genius.
The book, by Kyle Jarrow, is as simple as the pejorative that has dogged SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) for his entire life. After years of being told that he's "just a simple sponge," SpongeBob must save his hometown of Bikini Bottom from annihilation at the hands of Mount Humongous, which is about to erupt. That's where the simplicity ends.
Landau and her creative team have reimagined the television series for the stage, building a world that resembles the cartoon, while taking brilliant advantage of this new medium. Kevin Adams sets the tone with soothing undersea lighting, while David Zinn builds an eye-popping set constructed from found objects, including a coral reef made of solo cups, umbrellas with plastic tarps signifying jellyfish, and a show curtain consisting entirely of sponges. Zinn's equally impressive costumes don't take the foam-head route; instead, his brightly colored, ornately patterned outfits suggest what the denizens of Bikini Bottom would wear if they were human beings.
Jarrow's warm and funny script is both a parable for our own political era and an adventure story that reaches its apex when the title character must scale an active volcano. Landau develops the vibe of a rock concert throughout, while Jarrow's text theatricalizes the incendiary humor of the TV show. Fans will appreciate certain jokes, but you need not know anything canonical in order to follow along.
Jonathan Coulton's six-minute earworm of an opening number, "Bikini Bottom Day," introduces us to every character and sets the scene. Here's Sandy (Lilli Cooper, sweet and strong), a Texan squirrel whose scientific creations can predict precisely when Bikini Bottom will be destroyed. There's Squidward (Gavin Lee), who wants the world to see his one-man show, Tentacle Spectacle, and Patrick Star (Danny Skinner, appropriately oafish), a sea star who just wants to feel appreciated. Chief antagonists Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) and his wife, Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu), are up to the usual villain trope: No good.
The show, however, is on the fatty side, with too many minor characters having their own songs and moments to shine when they don't really need to, like SpongeBob's employer (Brian Ray Norris) and his daughter, Pearl (Jai' Len Christine Li Josey, whose voice is unreal). Patchy the Pirate (Jon Rua, at sea), isn't important enough to earn a whole number, let alone the second-act opener penned by Sara Bareilles (though Landau plants a hilarious sight gag within it). Conversely, Sandy, a major supporting character, doesn't have (but should have) her own number the way Patrick, Squidward, and Sheldon Plankton do.
Musically, arranger and orchestrator Tom Kitt has taken 17 disparate songs and made them cohere while still retaining the signature sounds of their individual composers. "BFF", an early tune for SpongeBob and Patrick before they have a falling out, is the band Plain White T's at their finest. Lee stops the show with a four-legged tap number written by They Might Be Giants, and Taylor does too as he raps T.I.'s "When the Going Gets Tough." Slater, whose uncanny performance as SpongeBob is superhuman, irony-free, and one of the best Broadway debuts of 2017, blows the roof off the theater with Brandon Urie's "(Just A) Simple Sponge," a tune that could easily become a No. 1 single.
Choreographer Christopher Gattelli creates bold and unique production numbers for each different song style, while musical director Julie McBride keeps the band, including live Foley artist Mike Dobson, together in top-notch fashion, even as she and the cast are assaulted by balls shot out of massive Rube Goldberg-style machines on each side of the proscenium.
Landau's vision of SpongeBob SquarePants proves that, with the right amount of creativity and imagination, it's possible to adapt a beloved property for the stage and successfully turn it into its own thing. SpongeBob might save the day in the end, but Landau is the real hero in this venture, and an inspiring one at that.