Translating a cartoon to the Broadway stage is strange business (unless, of course, you’re Disney). And it’s even stranger when that cartoon is one of the most surreal kids’ programs that’s ever been on TV: Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants.
In a musical full of bright colors and bold choices, director Tina Landau’s boldest choice requires a hefty amount of trust in her audience’s imaginations. Instead of donning giant foam costumes to look like a sponge, a starfish, or a crab, the main characters are just… people. SpongeBob (newcomer Ethan Slater) is a compact, yellow-shirt-wearing young man with impressively square-looking broad shoulders. His best friend, Patrick (Danny Skinner, also in his Broadway debut), nominally a sluggish, snack-obsessed starfish, sports a pompadour that approximates a pointy head. Spring Awakening’s Lilli Cooper is Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel from Texas who, in the cartoon, wears a spacesuit to survive underwater; in the musical, her cropped Afro takes the place of her astronaut’s helmet. As Squidward, the grouch next door, Gavin Lee (a Tony nominee for Mary Poppins) has an extra pair of legs and turquoise hair; and Brian Ray Norris, as Eugene Krabs, dons giant red boxing gloves instead of massive claws. The actors all do fine jobs embodying their characters, but I still found myself wishing I didn’t have to imagine a yellow sponge around Slater’s body — even if it might have made the show look more like theme park entertainment than a Broadway musical.
These familiar characters — along with microscopic villain Plankton (Wesley Taylor), Mr. Krabs’s daughter, Pearl (18-year-old vocal powerhouse Jai’len Christine Li Josey), and the rest of the colorful undersea residents of Bikini Bottom — have their world literally shaken up when a series of increasingly strong tremors from the volcano Mt. Humongous threaten to obliterate their home and their lives. While they await the end of the world, a series of smaller plots are going on: Plankton is trying to hypnotize everyone so they’ll want his Chum Bucket burgers over Mr. Krabs’ Krabby Patties; Sandy is being harassed by residents for being a land mammal (the same residents she and SpongeBob are trying to save from impending doom); Patrick inadvertently becomes the leader of a cult of sardines; and Squidward is trying to figure out how to get his one-man musical extravaganza off the ground. And all the while, SpongeBob is doing some soul-searching to find out what he — neither smart like Sandy nor strong like Patrick — brings to the table.
If that sounds like a lot… it is. A head-spinningly packed Act I spends far too long setting up these various threads, and keeping track of everything while taking in the wildly detailed and immersive set is quite a feat. Act II is much smoother, and features some of the show’s highlights, like Squidward’s gorgeous tap number (backed by a chorus line of anemones), and Sandy and SpongeBob’s impressively gymnastic climb to the top of that volcano.
Not everything works, and there’s often too much going on onstage at any given moment. On TV, the show’s outlandish wackiness is smartly confined to two 11-minute segments per episode. So it’s something of a challenge to stay fully invested and interested in this world for two hours and 30 minutes. But SpongeBob certainly deserves points for creativity. David Zinn’s costumes look like a combination between Dr. Seuss and The Hunger Games’ Capitol, and his set seems composed solely of junkyard finds and foam swimming pool noodles. The actors — especially Slater and Skinner — move their bodies in quick flashes and exaggerate their expressions so they really do feel like cartoons come to life. And there are plenty of winks to the show and its spirit, like the “One Hour Later” meme and SpongeBob’s “I’m ready” catchphrase. Slater’s impression of SpongeBob’s laugh, too, is uncannily accurate.
While few of SpongeBob’s songs are likely to become musical theater classics, the range of styles is impressive, as the soundtrack features a lineup written by artists like John Legend, David Bowie and Brian Eno, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum, and Sara Bareilles. Standouts include Yolanda Adams’ “Super Sea Star Savior,” a thrilling gospel number with Patrick and his sardines, and John Legend’s BFF ballad “(I Guess I) Miss You.”
Overall, it’s an entertaining, if overstuffed and a bit too experimental, homage to the long-running cartoon — though audience members over the age of 11 may leave the theater with a touch of seasickness. B