Theater Review: THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL (Pre-Broadway World Premiere, Oriental Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 20, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Upfront confession: I’ve never seen Nickelodeon’s 17-year-old SpongeBob SquarePants animation series. But my ignorance of this aquatic Sesame Street and its fishy fantasies (happily enlightened by two knowledgeable theater companions) actually helps to objectively judge the self-sustaining entertainment value of The SpongeBob Musical. Can this confection, now in a pre-Broadway shakedown cruise at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, stand—and sing—on its own, even to landlubbers who can’t distinguish Eugene Krabs, the greedy crustacean proprietor of Krusty Krab, from Plankton, a snarling copepod who operates the competing fast-food Chum Bucket?

The Sponge Bob MusicalOriental Theatre

Yes! Packed with nautical novelties and anemone attractions, this lavish co-production by Nickelodeon, Sony Music Masterworks, The Arca Group and Keep On The Road is a world premiere that works, a deep-sea delight splendid to see and gorgeous to hear. A tribute to Neptune, this wickedly winning offering takes us on an enthralling 150-minute amusement ride, delivering equal joy to children and non-kids. Happily too, the oceanic appeal of this animated Atlantis rewards both instantly converted non-fans and aficionados of the aquatic caricatures of blue-green Bikini Bottom. Fueling the fun is an electric/eclectic score, a whole greater than its parts by the likes of Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Arrowsmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Cyndi Lauper, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and T.I. Along with the series’ theme song from 1999, it’s a labor of love by a living jukebox of contemporary standard bearers.

The Sponge Bob MusicalOriental Theatre

With neon sculptures dangling above, sargasso-style stalactites, coral-reef tubing, five periscope-like video screens, and a skateboard runway straight into the orchestra pit, David Zinn’s marvelous set sprawls across the ornate proscenium and over the box seats. (From “jelly fish fields” to sequined sardines, his manic costumes are marine masterpieces.) The result is a Rube Goldberg contraption/bubble machine that also delivers boulders from the show’s nemesis, a subterranean volcano about to erupt and give Bikini Bottom a new “top.” Conceived and directed by Tina Landau (who Chicago knows from Steppenwolf shows), SpongeBob Musical reverses the usual “fish out of water humor” and turns a survival saga into a celebration of solidarity among gill-breathers and lung livers alike.

Insecure but optimistic and far from cold-blooded, winsome Ethan Slater’s humanized SpongeBob worries that he lacks management material to handle the crisis. But this sea sponge (who more resembles a kitchen cleaner and whose orange hair has an unfortunate political resemblance) gets help from pink Patrick, his sweetly starfish chum (Danny Skinner) and Lili Cooper’s karate-skilled, Texas-twanging squirrel Sandy Cheeks, minus the scuba suit. (The trio’s solid anthem is Cyndi Lauper’s infectious “Hero Is My Middle Name.”)  Equally engaging is testy, stagestruck Squidward Tentacles (Gavin Lee, stopping the show with his second-act tap-dancing extravaganza “I’m Not a Loser” by They Might Be Giants). This dipsy dreamer–his octopus “legs” are sidesplitting appendages–mounts a fundraiser, starring the punk-rolling Electric Skates (Curtis Holbrook, L’Ogan J’ones, JC Schuster), to evacuate the bottom-feeding town.

The Sponge Bob MusicalOriental Theatre

Perilously, the flight plan plays into Plankton’s scheme to hypnotize B.B. into giving up Mr. Krabs’ aquaburgers for his chum cuisine. But clever scientist Sandy comes up with an “Erupter Interrupter,” an apocalypse reverser that just might plug the magma flow from Mt. Humongous and save their wet world. In “Chop to the Top” (by Lady Antebellum) the three BFFs struggle to put a volatile volcano to sleep in the deep.

Like everything else in this madcap plot, it’s just a delirious excuse for Christopher Gattelli’s boogie-bursting choreography. There’s Sara Bareilles’s “Poor Pirates,” a hard-hoofing second-act opener by Patchy (Jason Michael Snow) that takes the Jolly Roger to new depths. T.I.’s “When the Going Gets Tough” and Jonathan Coulton’s “Bikini Bottom Day” give new meaning to depth charges as they introduce us to SpongeBob’s fellow citizens–garrulous Old Man Jenkins (Mark Ledbetter), whale waif Pearl (Emmy Raver-Lampman), muscular Larry the Lobster (Allan K. Washington), diving instructor Mrs. Puff (Abby C. Smith), the overly bureaucratic Mayor (Gaelen Gilliland)—you get the drift.

The Sponge Bob MusicalOriental Theatre

Breakout romps like “Best Day Ever” (by Andy Paley and Tom Kenny) and Yolanda Adams’s gospel-fervent “Super Sea Star Savior,” where Patrick becomes a celebrity guru, pull out all the showbiz stops—sight gags, visual puns, and color-crazed props galore. The pyrotechnical ending, enough to make Blue Man Group blush, is a take-home thrill that beggars description.

Poseidon couldn’t be prouder of this sea spectacle with its big-hearted bottom-dwellers. No yellow peril or sea slug, Slater’s title organism has enough bumptious indomitability to pep up a thousand aquaria. The happy hoper is supported by an inspired troupe of Atlantic Ocean superstars. Dori and Nemo notwithstanding, this seaworthy SpongeBob Musical will hit Broadway like a tsunami.

The Sponge Bob MusicalOriental Theatre

photos by Joan Marcus

The SpongeBob Musical
presented by Broadway in Chicago
at the Oriental Theatre until July 10, 2016
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago
for more info, visit SpongeBob

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