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SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical

When the going gets tough, / This sponge gets going! — SpongeBob SquarePants defying disaster in song in Act One of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.
Ethan Slater (Photo: Joan Marcus)
SpongeBob SquarePants, the irrepressibly optimistic title character of Nickelodeon's animated series, has arrived at the Palace Theatre in a lavish vehicle called SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Embodied by a caper-cutting dynamo named Ethan Slater, SpongeBob joins a long list of cartoon characters — Li'l Abner, Superman, the Peanuts and Doonesbury gangs, Disney figures from Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin, and (just last season) Anastasia — who have gravitated to the Broadway stage.

The television series, created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg, has been an unrivaled success on MTV Networks' Nickelodeon since 1999. The SpongeBob franchise, distributed globally, includes television specials, two feature films, books, and merchandise beyond belief. Considering the cartoon's worldwide popularity, it may have been inevitable that this perky little yellow sponge would end up singing and dancing on Broadway.

The imaginative world of SpongeBob is a wacky amalgam of post-modernist folderol. SpongeBob is an aquatic Candide capable of finding something upbeat in even the worst disaster. He lives with his pet snail, Gary, in a pineapple in a suboceanic municipality called Bikini Bottom. His closest friends are Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), a muscular but dunderheaded starfish, and Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), a squirrel with aptitude for science and karate.

SpongeBob makes his living as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab, a greasy spoon owned by greedy Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris); and he's too naive to recognize the contempt of his employer and his coworker, Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee), the restaurant's whiney cashier. Bikini Bottom's feckless villain, Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor), provides conflict so mild that even the youngest spectator is unlikely to be unsettled by it.

Nickelodeon, which heads the list of the musical's above-the-title producers, has assembled an enviable creative team to bring its crown-jewel cartoon to the stage. The resourceful Tina Landau, long-time member of Chicago's Steppenwolf company and author (with Adam Guettel) of the musical drama Floyd Collins, is the director. Composer Tom Kitt, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Next to Normal, is the show's music supervisor.

Veteran designer David Zinn is in charge of both scenery and costumes. Working hand-in-glove with Zinn are Kevin Adams (lighting), Peter Nigrini (projections), and Walter Trarbach (sound). Zinn's elaborate set is a hodgepodge of aquatic images, Florida colors, and contraptions jerry-rigged all around the stage and auditorium. From the first scene of the play, it's evident that Zinn's set with its Rube Goldberg operations is a star of SpongeBog SquarePants: The Broadway Musical and not merely part of the background.

The book of the musical is by Kyle Jarrow, creator of the CW Network series Valor. The story's conflicts are triggered by volcanic rumbling from Mount Humongous, which towers above Bikini Bottom. With the volcano about to blow, citizens of Bikini Bottom are panicked, bickering rather than figuring out how to save themselves. But this is a musical comedy, so there's a bright side: here's an opportunity for SpongeBob to show the dismissive Mr. Krabs — and all the world, for that matter — that he's "not just a simple sponge." He's going to employ Sandy's scientific acumen and Patrick's brawn to save the day. But that's easier proposed than accomplished!

It's axiomatic in musical theater that what's too silly to speak may pass muster if it's sung. Jarrow's slim libretto benefits from the show's 15 songs, which are by an array of pop music heavyweights, including David Bowie, Brian Eno, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, John Legend, Sarah Bareilles, They Might Be Giants, and Panic! At the Disco. This may not be a stellar score, but it's expertly played and sung; and, despite the variety of songwriters, the numbers are admirably integrated in the action and story.

Months from now, when the dust settles around this much buzzed about new musical, Ethan Slater is what people will still be talking about. Slater could have been genetically engineered to fit the role of the yellow rhomboid fry cook. Or, for that matter, the show could have been written for his vocal and comedic talents (and perhaps it has been).

Two years ago, as second lead in Claudio Quest at the New York Musical Theater Festival, Slater (who was not long out of Vassar at the time) displayed the comic timing of an old pro. In SpongeBob, he works magic on the banalities of Jarrow's script, refreshing his character's lines with unpredictable uses of an impressive vocal range, athletic agility, and facial expressiveness. His initial sponge-like demeanor belies the energy and physical prowess that make his performance varied and explosive throughout the two and a half hours in which he seldom leaves the stage. Under Landau's direction, he has found the spirit of SpongeBob without merely imitating the on-screen character or relying on theme-park style costuming or prostheses.

Slater is surrounded by fine supporting players and an admirable (and idiosyncratic) ensemble. Especially notable is Gavin Lee, who created the role of Bert in Mary Poppins in the West End and on Broadway. As played by Lee, Squidward is the show's funniest figure.

Lee engineers the high point of the musical's second act when Squidward momentarily overcomes his moroseness, joining a chorus line of androgynous sea anemones to belt a show-stopping anthem, "I'm Not a Loser" by They Might Be Giants. This sequence, exquisitely choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and featuring spangle and feather bedecked costumes by Zinn, is both an exuberant parody of campy Broadway glitz and an exhibition of how exhilarating musical theater can be when talented, well-trained "gypsies" pull out all the stops.

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SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical
Conceived and Directed by Tina Landau
Book by Kyle Jarrow
Orchestrations, Arrangements & Music Supervision by Tom Kitt
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Cast: Ethan Slater as SpongeBob SquarePants; Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles; Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks; Brian Ray Norris as Eugene Krabs; Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton; aDanny Skinner as Patrick Star.
The ensemble will include Alex Gibson, Gaelen Gilliland, Juliane Godfrey, Kyle Matthew Hamilton, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Hsu, Jesse JP Johnson, L'ogan J'ones, Jai'len Christine Li Josey, Kelvin Moon Loh, Lauralyn McClelland, Vasthy Mompoint, Oneika Phillips, Jon Rua, JC Schuster, Abby C. Smith, Robert Taylor Jr., Allan Washington, Brynn Williams, Matt Wood and Tom Kenny as the French Narrator.
Scenic and costume design by David Zinn
Lighting design by Kevin Adams
Projection design by Peter Nigrini
Sound design by Walter Trarbach
Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe
Stage Manager: Julia Jones
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, includes 1 intermission
The Palace Theatre 1564 Broadway - Broadway at 47th Street
From 11/06/17; opening 12/04/17; closing 9/ 16/18.
Original songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, Panic! Also a song by David Bowie; additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton.
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 12/01/17 press preview

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