Some seem incredulous based on the piece of intellectual property that spawned this production; however, unlike a certain New York fiasco with a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” The SpongeBob Musical manages to adapt a beloved character to the stage without alienating its target audience or the general theater demographic. In a winning production under Tina Landau’s inventive direction, SpongeBob & Co. sing, dance, rock and joke their way through a fun-filled, underwater adventure that is nigh impossible to leave without grinning.
Many people want to know just what they’re getting into when purchasing tickets to The SpongeBob Musical, a logical question with the failure of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark still ringing in the ears of many. Co-conceived and directed by Tina Landau, with a book by Kyle Jarrow and orchestrations, arrangements and music supervision by Tom Kitt, The SpongeBob Musical tells the story of the citizens of Bikini Bottom and the chaos that erupts when they become endangered by the imminent eruption of Mount Humongous. The musical contains an eclectic amalgam of original songs from artists ranging from Sarah Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, The Flaming Lips, Panic! At the Disco, John Legend and David Bowie. Thanks to Landau’s wildly imaginative staging, which theatricalizes everything from umbrellas to cardboard boxes (and, of course, sponges), the cartoonish absurdity of the source material is captured expertly.
Each actor’s performance goes hand-in-hand with selling Landau and Jarrow’s vision, and when it comes to Broadway-level talent, The SpongeBob Musical doesn’t disappoint. In the eponymous role, Ethan Slater knocks ‘em dead with his charming portrayal of an optimistic sponge who feels he is destined for some greater purpose. In supporting roles, Danny Skinner’s Patrick, Lilli Cooper’s Sandy Cheeks, and Gavin Lee’s Squidward complement Slater wonderfully, performing their songs and scenes with commitment and gusto. Lee has what might be the second-best performance of the bunch, with a hilarious, double-negative-filled dream-sequence that transforms into a show-stopping number that ended in close to a solid minute of enthusiastic applause.
This is not to say that The SpongeBob Musical is without some flaws that could benefit from a bit more ironing out. The first act—which must introduce us to multiple characters in a way that isn’t redundant to loyal fans, yet opens the gate for new ones—meanders a bit, despite the strength of the actors and music. While these compositions set up each character’s goals, there isn’t as much for minor characters like Mr. Krabs (Carlos Lopez) and Pearl (Emmy Raver-Lampman) to do until the second act. But once the ball gets rolling (and multiple balls do, quite literally, in a wacky, Rube Goldberg-inspired perpetual motion machine that launches volcanic rubble to the stage) there’s no stopping it until the joyous chaos culminates in the ebullient “Best Day Ever.” By the time you leave the theater, the faults don’t stick so much as the musical’s overarching message of the power of unbridled optimism.
Featuring a set reclaimed from pool noodles, balls and shimmering streamers, The SpongeBob Musical feels, at times, like some sort of 1960s tiki party acid trip. David Zinn’s wacky scenic and costume design feels excessive, yet restrained, as the underpinnings of many of the large set-pieces have the recycled feel of children using their imagination to create their own Bikini Bottom after a Saturday morning full of cartoons. Walter Trarbach’s sound design skillfully captures the television show’s over-the-top use of non-diagetic sound, further solidifying The SpongeBob Musical as part faithful adaptation, part musical re-imagination. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography similarly balances the line between cartoonish and Broadway-caliber.
Ultimately, The SpongeBob Musical is a buffoonish bonanza with real heart. Anchored by stylish design, imaginative staging and strong performances, the production honors its source material, while reinventing it to touch a new generation of audiences. The story of The SpongeBob Musical may be fluffy, but its case for optimism and sheer creativity can’t help but create an undefeatable experience of infectious joy.
Tickets for The SpongeBob Musical at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, range from $33-$100. A select number of premium tickets are available for many performances. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations and online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.