BY ELYSE TREVERS
Even if you aren’t familiar with the animated television show, be prepared to smile a lot at “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.”
Created by a marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg, the series takes place in the fictional city of Bikini Bottom and premiered in July 1999. The show includes a number of sea creatures, fancifully drawn, as well as one land creature, Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel from Texas.
Kyle Jarrow’s book includes several different plot lines. They are too numerous to go into here, but the most important is that an active volcano is going to erupt and destroy Bikini Bottom. What to do? SpongeBob SquarePants, his best friend Patrick Star and Sandy Cheeks form a plan to stop it.
In the meantime, others find different ways to cope. Some seek to cast blame, other to profit, and Plankton tries to gain control over everyone through mass hypnosis. A school of sardines finds a savior in sweet simple Patrick Star (Danny Skinner.) Their adulation of him is one of the funniest bits of the show as they find deep meaning in some of the inane things he says.
Director Tina Landau makes no attempt to have the actors look like cartoons. SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) wears plaid pants, a yellow shirt and suspenders. Slater is quite athletic and throughout the show displays the buoyant optimism that defines his character. This will surely be a breakout role for him. Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) is in a white jump suit (so she can breathe underwater.) Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee) has an extra pair of legs attached to his own and he’s especially entertaining when he does a fantastic tap dance, backed up by a chorus of sea creatures.
Although some of the characters seem ludicrous, each has a solo that delineates his or her personality. Fortunately, after the initial introduction of Sheldon J.Plankton as a tiny green copepod, actor Wesley Taylor performs as a man.
In spite of the silliness (and there’s a lot) there are several serious themes. SpongeBob and Patrick are BFFs and sing a nice number about friendship. The musical also handles prejudice. When the underwater denizens seeking to blame someone for the impending catastrophe, they blame Sally Cheeks. Since she’s different, she becomes the “scape squirrel”. The play handles parent –child relationships with the miserly Eugene Krabs who seems to love his money more than he does his whale daughter Pearl. She is played by Jai’len Christine Li Josey, a young girl with an incredible voice and a 2015 Jimmy Award winner.
There’s even some real adult stuff, especially in the character of the mayor, a master of double-talk. When asked for her plan to save the town, she says nothing, several times.
Except for the actual television theme song, the music was newly-commissioned specifically for the show and includes songs and music by Sara Bareilles, David Bowie, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and others.
David Zinn’s costume and stage designs are vibrant and colorful and will undoubtedly win him several Tony nominations. In one scene, the jellyfish take over the stage – each performer holding a flowing undulating umbrella. The staging is delightful with Rube Goldberg-like contraptions on each side of the stage. Each of the two releases “rocks” from the volcano, frightening the inhabitants.
Watching SpongeBob SquarePants is like taking a happy pill with no after effects. It’s surprisingly delightful and sweet. There’s something for everyone: bubbles, skate boards, a rock band, tap dancing and even more. Director Tina Landau has pulled off quite an achievement. She’s taken a children’s animated cartoon, used all the characters and themes and yet managed to appeal wholeheartedly to adults.