For those who have not spent any time watching SpongeBob Squarepants on Nickelodeon since its premier 17 years ago, the opening number of The SpongeBob Musical (“Bikini Bottom Day” written by Jonathan Coulton) provides a brief introduction of all of the major characters. For those that have watched the show, “Bikini Bottom Day” is a spectacle of creative yet simplified costuming. Mr. Krabs (Carlos Lopez) emerges wearing giant red boxing gloves to simulate his claws, Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) has a pointy pink haircut, and Squidward (Gavin Lee) wears a pair of pants with two false legs attached. With each character introduction, the audience laughs and sometimes even applauds… this is a show that knows thy audience.
Theatergoers who require depth from their characters are not the target of this Broadway-bound production directed and co-conceived by Tina Landau. The show is so filled with these one-dimensional characters that many scenes labor along until each gets his/her say. The greatest payoffs come from Squidward, the show’s pessimistic counter-balance for SpongeBob’s optimism. Squidward’s joke revolves around his desire to perform his one-man clarinet show Tentacle Spectacle: the Musical at the Bikini Bowl. Squidward’s plight emerges in SpongeBob the Musical’s undisputed showstopper—a tap number featuring a flashy costume change, a line of dancing sea anemones, a double-negative infused song “I’m Not a Loser” by They Might be Giants, and (most importantly) Gavin Lee’s exhilarating dance skills. “I’m Not a Loser” proves that even in a musical designed to showcase one glittery, high-octane spectacle after the next, the best moment is still pure Broadway—a catchy song, a sympathetic character, and “how does he do that” dancing. (I am choosing to avoid photos from the production, but this article from Entertainment Weekly includes photos for those that are unlikely to see it on stage.)
The main plot of SpongeBob the Musical follows the line of a 12-minute cartoon episode. An underwater volcano is going to erupt in 36 hours, and SpongeBob, Patrick, and Texas-squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) must save Bikini Bottom from becoming a ghost town of bleached coral. Along the way, SpongeBob and his friends perform songs highlighted by a variety of props including an accordion couch (“BFF” by Plain White T’s) and a mountain of moving ladders (“Chop to the Top” by Lady Antebellum), among others.
One of the gimmicks behind this musical is that the songs were written for the show by a series of guest artists including Cyndi Lauper, Steven Tyler, and the late David Bowie. Most of the tunes are hummable and amendable to interesting choreography. The continuity, however, suffers to the extent that the orchestra director could accidentally change the order of the songs each night without the audience noticing. In fact, The Flaming Lips’s “Tomorrow Is” lacks the punch to close out the first act… a quick switch with Cyndi Lauper’s “Hero is My Middle Name” (a preceding song) would be an improvement.
Stuffy criticisms aside, SpongeBob the Musical is a fun experience—interesting costumes, neon lights, computer-generated projections, three-story sets, enough blue streamers to make the Oriental Theater feel like the bottom of the ocean, two Mousetrap-game-style contraptions that shoot “lava balls” onto the stage, and ultimately a dazzling amount of bubbles and confetti. All told, during the curtain call adults and children alike gave their greatest cheers for Gavin Lee before chanting the titular words together in a rock version of the famed theme song.*
*NOTE: My first encounter with children’s enthusiastic and vocal reaction to hearing the SpongeBob Squarepants theme song was between innings at an Iowa Cubs game. More than 1000 kids screaming “Sponge-Bob-Square-Pants” in unison prompted my friend Angela to declare that the SpongeBob was “like a cult.”