To the long-running animated children’s show SpongeBob SquarePants music has always been important, from the tongue-in-cheek theme song led by a singing pirate to the full-on musical numbers that jazz up occasional episodes. The show’s cleverness and creativity peaked in its early seasons, but they were enough to captivate a generation-plus of kids of all stripes and reel in a fair catch of adults too, especially of the sort that once upon a time spent a slice of their Saturdays in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
So the arrival of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical is no shocker, and the extravaganza is now on Broadway. Kyle Jarrow has conceived a story that puts the show’s appealing characters into a doomsday scenario encrusted, sea anemone-style, with a surprisingly persistent if easy to take sociopolitical edge.
What makes the show really unusual is not its genesis in children’s television but its score, each song composed by a different artist or songwriting team, all hailing from distant corners of the pop music universe. Part of the fun of seeing the show is knowing this fact ahead of time and not knowing what style of music will define the next number. Some are intrinsically better than others. But where one might expect them to clash, in sequence they form a colorful undersea mosaic.
To name a few names, there’s the sly, snappy brightness of Jonathan Coulton; the perfectly cartoonish over-the-top guitar rock of Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler; T.I.’s tight rap/r&b; gloom-rock from David Bowie and Brian Eno; John Legend’s smooth neo-soul; and glittery pop from Cyndi Lauper, now an old Broadway hand via Kinky Boots.
A glorious production number builds out from They Might Be Giants’ “I’m Not a Loser” led by a tap-dancing Squidward (a superb Gavin Lee) backed by a chorus of sea anemones. Panic! at the Disco’s “(Just a) Simple Sponge” becomes a brilliant anthem. Sara Bareilles’s contribution has nothing to do with the story, but who cares?
The fantastically articulated set features huge Rube Goldberg-esque devices that slam deadly boulders onto Bikini Bottom from the volcano that sets the story in motion. By contrast, a perilous mountain-climbing expedition to save the town is realized with ladders and boxes (to the music of Lady Antebellum). There’s plenty of athletic choreography and outrageous costumes. Standout voices include Brian Ray Norris as SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs and Jai’len Christine Li Josey as his daughter Pearl. (In a world where a sea sponge can live in a pineapple, there’s no reason a crab can’t have a whale for a daughter.)
The variety of ways the TV show’s creators find to anthropomorphize a wide array of sea creatures has always been one of its most clever aspects. How scenic and costume designer David Zinn turns these anything-goes cartoon creations into workable live-human form using little more than fairly simple costumes is most impressive.
Ethan Slater has developed his wily, athletic performance as SpongeBob over a long period, including Chicago tryouts. A winning Danny Skinner has done the same for SpongeBob’s pouty starfish BFF Patrick. So these central characters, though still cartoons at heart, are satisfyingly fleshed out. Wesley Taylor does as well with the smarmy villain Plankton, who has great chemistry with his computer wife/sidekick Karen (Stephanie Hsu in a bright, funny turn).
Lilli Cooper is earnestly appealing as Sandy the squirrel, air helmet portrayed by a demure afro. She’s a fish-out-of-water victim of nativism (“Land Mammals Go Home”) until her invention saves the town. It’s a neatly wrapped, kid-friendly lesson in tolerance sure to resonate with adult audiences in these divisive times. Artistic references to the likes of Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl add further depth.
The story and structure are pretty loose – the pirates are out of the (ocean) blue, and when a chorus of sardines suddenly adopt Patrick as their deity it seems to be mainly a device to create conflict between the best friends. But a show like this doesn’t depend on tightness of plot. This musical is mainly about family-friendly fun and spectacle, and it delivers on both counts. For tickets visit Ticketmaster online.