BWW Review: THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL serves up smiles and a whole lotta heart in its Toronto premiere
Who lives in a pineapple on a big stage?
THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL, presented by TO Live and NETworks Presentations, seems more than ready to make its Toronto premiere with a perfectly-cast ensemble, imaginative sets and costumes, and enough optimism to rival the yellow sponge himself.
It's a typical Bikini Bottom day for Spongebob (Lorenzo Pugliese) as he wakes up and makes his way to work at the Krusty Krab - or at least, it is until a series of tremors start interfering. Texan squirrel scientist Sandy (Daria Pilar Redus) discovers that a dormant underwater volcano is set to erupt the next day and wipe out the town, and her announcement sends everyone into full-blown panic. Local villain Plankton (Tristan McIntyre) sets his own scheme into motion to take advantage of the town's panic and overthrow money-hungry crustacean Mr. Krabs' (Zach Kononov) grip on the city's restaurant scene, but Spongebob, Sandy and Patrick (Beau Bradshaw) come up with a plan to save the day - and no, it's not to take Bikini Bottom and push it somewhere else.
It's not your standard save-the-day kind of story, though. Along the way they lose Patrick to a sardine cult, Sandy is made a scapegoat for the entire emergency because she's a mammal, and Spongebob deals with crushing self-doubt. The story doesn't hesitate to make connections to real issues like climate change, racism and separatism, and government oppression - but director Tina Landau and author Kyle Jarrow bring them to a level that a young audience can understand.
Featuring a score by Tom Kitt and a collection of songs written by multiple recording artists and songwriters from a range of genres, THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL's tracks are strong, but sometimes feel a bit disjointed. It's never enough to detract from the story, and in many cases it makes sense for each character singing, but there is a bit of musical whiplash when you go from a sweet acoustic song about friendship to a fast-paced rap about world domination. Regardless, the cast does a phenomenal job across the board - the gospel choir-inspired "Super Sea Star Saviour" gives Bradshaw and the sardine ensemble plenty of room to belt, Spongebob's "(Just A) Simple Sponge" is a musical theatre-meets-pop rock power ballad, and Squidward's (Cody Cooley) "I'm Not A Loser" is a complete showstopper.
I'm always a bit hesitant when something I loved as a child gets a remake, reboot, or in this case, theatrical staging. Like a lot of other people my age, Spongebob Squarepants was my first introduction to comedy - and I'd be lying if I said it didn't have a hand in shaping my sense of humour.
Any concerns I took into the theatre didn't make it past the first act. Costumes (David Zinn, also credited with scenic design) invoke the cartoon's characters without being too on-the-nose, while Zinn's sets reimagine everyday junk into magical underwater plants and creatures. Despite some technical issues with projections and sound mixing on opening night, lighting (Kevin Adams) and projections (Peter Nigrini) mix conventional and unconventional techniques that are incredibly smart and wholly unique. Foley art (Chris Cerreto) ensures the little sounds of Bikini Bottom happen in real time, and they're executed so well that they're almost unnoticeable.
As for the cast, it's clear that everyone onstage is passionate about what they're doing. Pugliese radiates the charm and positivity that has become synonymous with Spongebob; he's also a quadruple threat - he sings, dances, acts, and does some ridiculous acrobatic work that, when combined with everything else he's doing at the same time, is extremely impressive. Bradshaw is a goofy, loveable Patrick, while Redus has the wit and tenacity of Sandy in spades. Cooley nails all the elements that make Squidward as iconic as he is - the deep artistic drive, the sarcasm, the snarky lip curl; and the entire ensemble, whether they're playing series regulars or nameless fish, do so wonderfully.
THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL takes everything that makes the television series so loved and does it justice in person and in real time - a feat not achieved by all stage adaptations of film and TV hits. It's a stark reminder of the issues with our world, but through Spongebob's optimistic lens, it ends with a powerful message - by making the best of our circumstances and fighting for what's right, change is possible. It's something important for audience members of all ages to take home, and it's a nice reminder that in a world where bleak outlooks often dominate, there's nothing wrong with trying to see the light and make things a little better for the people we love.
TO Live and NETworks Presentations' THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL runs through December 22 at Meridian Hall, 1 Front St E, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.meridianhall.com/calendar-event-details/?id=573
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel