Instinctually, when someone yells out, “who lives in a pineapple under the sea,” we cannot hold ourselves back from screaming the name of an absorbent and porous sea sponge, Spongebob Squarepants. If you’re anything like me, you grew up glued to the screen in the late 90s and early 2000s watching the misadventures of Spongebob and his gang of sea creatures that included the dunce of a seastar, Patrick Star, and the ingenious squirrel, Sandy Cheeks. Fast forward almost two decades later and I still find myself to be a fanatic of the cartoon that shaped my childhood.
When Nickelodeon announced the premiere of “Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical” at The Palace Theatre back in June 2017, I admit to reluctancy in forking over a considerable amount of money to feed off more nostalgia from Mr. Squarepants. However, after a successful run in 2016 at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, and rave reviews from Time Out New York and the New York Times, my interest was piqued. So, I found myself heading to Broadway for my first true Broadway show to hang out under the sea with my childhood hero once again.
Based on the book by Kyle Jarrow (“Whisper House,” “The Wilderness”), Spongebob the Musical follows our titular hero (Ethan Slater) as he finds himself keeping the town of Bikini Bottom afloat when the eruption of a nearby volcano threatens the existence of the town and all of its residents. Meanwhile, everyone in the city has their own hidden agenda, whether it be Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) and his computer wife Karen (Stephanie Hsu) plotting to stop Spongebob’s mission or Mr. Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris) simply wanting to make a profit off of the coming apocalypse. These varying subplots come together in an explosive ending that leaves theatre-goers on the edge of their seats to see if Spongebob saves the town or fails in his efforts.
While the plot may seem two-dimensional in terms of the zanny aesthetic of its source material, what truly brings this musical to life is the top notch acting and vocal performances exhibited throughout the two and a half hour extravaganza. Most notably, Slater’s performance as Spongebob was undeniably genuine and not for one moment did I doubt that Slater was in fact the true essence of the famed sea sponge. The same goes for Patrick, played by Danny Skinner, who transcended the comical one-liners to deliver a stand-out performance that had me in stitches at times.
The true star of the play, however, lay in Gavin Lee, who portrayed everyone’s favorite octopus, Squidward Tentacles. His deadpan delivery and almost cynically perfect nature reminded me exactly why I related to the character so deeply. The casting, conducted by Patrick Goodwin, was intended to make oneself feel that they were not too far from the true reality of Bikini Bottom, with every actress and actor pulling their weight and proving to the audience that this musical was no money-grabbing accident. The only true problem in terms of acting I had was with Lilli Cooper as Sandy, as I felt that her performance and vocal range was limited, causing jokes and recalls to the show to fall flat despite the genuine breath of fresh air surrounding her.
As for the music, which included writing credits from the likes of Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith, and The Flaming Lips, there was a sense of playfulness interjected with sincere honesty that proved an emotional connection could be bridged between not only the cast and the audience, but also amongst members of the audience. While fans expected tunes from the show to emerge, which they did in the titular theme and “The Best Day Ever,” they were in for a treat as the material written exclusively for the play was just as good, if not better, than the original material. Standouts included the Squidward-led “I’m Not a Loser,” written by the alternative rock quintet They Might Be Giants, and of course, the leading musical number, Bikini Bottom Day, geniously arranged by podcaster and musician Jonathan Coulton.
Last, but not least, I’d be damned not to mention the design and costumes, which resembled an acid-soaked trip through a coral reef, complete with unique set pieces and stellar use of space in the orchestra that made one question if they themselves were tripping. According to director, Tina Landau, there was a decision made to not make the actors restricted by the amphomorphic shapes of their respective cartoon characters, which resulted in brilliant methods employed by costume designer, David Zinn, to dress the characters in similar fashion while also giving the play some unique flair in dress. This was most prominent with that of Slater’s Spongebob and with Taylor’s Plankton, who donned a sleek black and green suit rather than appearing in the nude like his cartoon counterpart. Zinn also had his hand in designing the set pieces and decor around the theatre, which was strung with blue ribbons, simulating being underwater, as well as various nautical elements strung throughout including shark heads and spongebob memorabilia.
So whether you count yourself a casual fan of Spongebob or you’re simply a Broadway nut, “Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical” is the feel-good musical you’ve been waiting for while bringing you back to the safe space of your childhood. “Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical” will run at the Palace Theatre on 1564 Broadway until Sept. 2, but be warned, tickets are selling out due to a certain pirate desperately wanting to see his favorite sponge.