BWW Review: Tina Landau Spins Seaweed Into Gold With SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
Feel free to lavish director Tina Landau with a flood of praise for spinning seaweed into gold with SpongeBob SquarePants, the hyperactive new musical based on the long-running Nickelodeon animated series that brings a cartoon vaudeville to the famed Palace Theatre.
For the uninitiated, the title character is, of course, a sponge (of the yellow rectangular kitchen sink variety) who lives inside a hollowed-out pineapple at the ocean's floor in a city called Bikini Bottom, where he works as a fry cook in a seafood joint called the Krusty Krab. Fans have been following the wacky adventures of him and his aquatic chums since May Day of 1999.
Set and costume designer David Zinn dresses the Palace stage like a brightly colored aquatic theme park, featuring clusters of kelp made from pool noodles, clumps of coral fashioned out of party cups, and a pair of Rube Goldberg machines that spit out beach balls built into the box seating. Fish occasionally swim by, courtesy of projection designer Peter Nigrini.
But what makes the production work so well is that Landau's lovably energetic company is staged in movements that effectively replicate those of their animated characters, accented by Foley artist Mike Dobson, stationed in view of the audience, manipulating sound effects of his own design.
Particularly adept at it is Ethan Slater, a real charmer in the title role who speaks and sings in a sweet boyish voice and winsomely glides across the stage exuding good-natured optimism.
Zinn wisely dresses the company in human fashions that suggest their cartoon counterparts without making complete transformations. Hence song and dance man Gavin Lee, as Squidward Q. Tentacles, walks around with an extra pair of legs pointed backwards. Red boxing gloves (perhaps stolen from the prop table of HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS) are the main feature that transforms Brian Ray Norris into Eugene Krabs. Admittedly, though, it's a bit difficult to figure out that the scientist from Texas, Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), is supposed to be a squirrel, or that Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) in his casual beachwear, is a starfish. (His pointy hairdo helps.)
The production values, which include the crazily-spirited choreography by Christopher Gattelli, are so strong that they come close to covering up the merely serviceable quality of much of the written material.
The book by Kyle Jarrow, Obie-winner for the brilliantly funny A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN'S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT, introduces the main characters and then sets up the situation that a nearby underwater volcano, Mount Humongous is threatening to blow sky-high and destroy the surroundings.
The thin plot that has SpongeBob and Sandy trying to save the day, while the diabolical Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor, grandly camping it up) and his computer W.I.F.E. Karen (wildly funny Stephanie Hsu), attempt to thwart their efforts.
An assortment of subplots keeps the other characters busy. Squidward's failed attempt to satisfy the contractual demands of a punk rock trio he's booked for a concert somehow lead to Lee's show-stopping four-footed tap routine. And whatever excuse is made to have Eugene's daughter Pearl involved is justified once getting a load of Jai'Len Christine Li Josey's stratospheric vocals.
As for the score, orchestrator and arranger Tom Kitt works with individual contributions written for the show by an assortment of stars (Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Evert of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T's, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil'C), a reworked version of David Bowie and Brian Eno's "No Control," Tom Kenny and Andy Paley's "Best Day Ever," written for the series, and the cartoon's theme song, penned by Derek Drymon, Mark Harrison, Stephen Hillenburg and Blaise Smith.
It's not a particularly memorable collection, though Coulton's "Bikini Bottom Day" is a solid opener, introducing the setup and main characters. Bareilles contributes the terrific "protest song" called "Poor Pirates," which tells of the sensitive side of the seafaring cutthroats. It's led by Patchy The Pirate (very funny Jon Rua), an audience member who gets tossed from the theatre by security for trying to take an onstage selfie before the show and spends the night trying to get back in.
Surely, fans of the cartoon series should find more to love in the book and score, but there's no denying that SpongeBob SquarePants is an optical treasure filled with clever stagecraft and played by a top-shelf company.