Just a 15 minute walk from the Palace Theater in New York City lies what some consider to be a literal manifestation of unspeakable hatred and vile corruption--The Trump Tower. Ominously rising above the city skyline, this Eye of Sauron has represented to some the celebration of tyranny while a biting indictment of all things ethical, whilst the opposing side angrily storms past the continuous protests outside wondering if this nonsensical whining from "bitter, sore losers" will ever cease.
It's an angry world out there and optimists seem to be becoming an endangered species. With a new "issue" offending the masses on a daily basis, it's a struggle to find the strength to even exist nowadays. The planet is becoming insufferable with its constant hatred and hostile finger-pointing (some of it even caused by the very people who believe they're helping,) which is why just 15 minutes away from the aforementioned vortex of rage, a certain jellyfish-catching, bubble-blowing, burger-flipping sponge and his undersea pals are beginning their Broadway run in an attempt to return some desperately needed joy to a society begging to be euthanized.
Originally premiering in 2016 as a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, "The Spongebob Musical" was met with some initial reluctance. Critics cited an un-focused book and an even less focused collection of songs as the cause of its failure. However, after enduring a reconstructional face-lift, the newly renamed "Spongebob Squarepants" has relocated to New York City much to the confusion of many audiences asking,
"How can a Spongebob Broadway musical be in any way at all good?"
It's a fair question, especially now during the lazy era of Broadway fans are currently enduring. With the never-ending trend of garbage musicals adapted from literally any pre-existing source (including non-musical works and even 18th century American statesmen), it's not difficult to write off "Spongebob Squarepants" as nothing more than another cash-grab example of the now-barren ruins of musical theater.
It's this review's job to convince a doubting public that "Spongebob Squarepants" redefines what Broadway is capable of, while also releasing its unrestrainable power to save the world one ticket at a time.
While no explicit spoilers will be discussed or even hinted at (and yes, there certainly are things to spoil) the show's relative newness might defer some readers completely unaware of its story. Although the basic plot of "Spongebob Squarepants" has already been released to the public, as a courtesy, a brief spoiler warning for simple plot details is now in effect until further notice.
"Spongebob Squarepants" begins with our humble French narrator welcoming us to the secluded area of the ocean floor where the bustling town of Bikini Bottom resides. We venture into the pineapple home of Bikini Bottom's most exuberant resident, Spongebob Squarepants (Ethan Slater), as he prepares for the high-spirited antics a day under those gorgeous flower-shaped clouds brings. He begins the song's stellar opening number "Bikini Bottom Day" that continues as we follow Spongebob through the city streets. We are introduced to neighbor/best friend Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), neighbor/curmudgeon Squidward Tentacles (Gavin Lee), Texan-at-heart/science genius Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), as well as a mess of other brightly colored costumed characters including Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris), Sheldon J. Plankton (Wesley Taylor), Pearl Krabs (Jai'len Josey), Mrs. Puff (Abby C. Smith), and even Old Man Jenkins (JC Shuster).
But before the song can conclude, an earthquake rocks the town, leaving the citizens of Bikini Bottom in a heightened sense of paranoia. When disclosed later by news anchor Perch Perkins (Kelvin Moon Loh) that a previously dormant supervolcano near the city limits caused the earthquake and is set to erupt and obliterate everything in its path, the town falls into frightened anarchy. Realizing they might be the only heroes capable of saving the day, Spongebob, Patrick and Sandy embark on a dangerous mission to stop the volcano and save their beloved town from apocalyptic devastation.
To review "Spongebob Squarepants" fairly and analytically is a challenge as difficult as the ocean is wet. For every five spectacular (seriously spectacular) highs found, one disappointing low counterstrikes to lower the scoreboard. Despite the enjoyment found in gushing over the many positives the show offers, the production is plagued with problems so glaring, ignoring them (as unfortunate as they are to accept) questions all integrity of any review past, present or future. While, ultimately, the experience of "Spongebob Squarepants" is even more jubilant and uproarious than even the most die-hard fans might expect, some significant flaws taint a near-perfect production. Don't worry, this part will be quick.
The plot itself of "Spongebob Squarepants" is one hugely misguided mess. Again, with no "spoilers" being discussed here, the main plot is far too thin to justify a theatrical run-time of two and a half hours. Centered around one plan that isn't even put into action until the show's second act, the pacing is shockingly infrequent. Side-conflicts seems to constantly be thrown at us, interrupting what little progression of the central plot exists. Plankton using his college-graduate genius for villainy, a cultish group of anchovies looking for a leader and Squidward being a stage manager to an uncooperative band for a charity concert are just three of the many detours "Spongebob Squarepants" devotes its time to rather than furthering the actual story the musical sets up almost immediately. To make matters worse, the majority of these plotlines fail to even conclude much less be relevant, resulting in a distracted, unengaging story that sometimes grinds the pace to a halt.
While this familiar absurdist ADD-inspired hyperactive storytelling is partly what makes the television show and subsequent films so endearing, that same idea does not translate to a fully realized, live-action setting. Even some of its many gags fall victim of this miscalculation, often failing in delivery because of real-world limitations. What works in the boundless realm of animation must now be replicated in the physically demanding real-world confines of a stage. It's because of this that it can sometimes be hard to resist temptation in wishing you were home watching the cartoon instead.
And to further the previously established point--the main plot is put into gear almost instantaneously. Rather than letting audiences soak in the immersive, creative domain of Bikini Bottom and the always entertaining hijinks it brings, the plot is put into action before the opening number even ends. And even though it is one of the strongest Broadway opening numbers in recent memory (no seriously), "Bikini Bottom Day" is used only to introduce us to characters rather than the environment they belong to. We get an occasional verse from characters to sing about their two-dimensional personality before moving on to the next one like a fan-service checklist. Patrick sings a verse about staying home to watch a "Mermaid-Man" marathon, Squidward sings a verse about wanting peace and quiet from his nuisance neighbors etc. While effective at introducing basic character designs to audiences perhaps unfamiliar with the characters they're about to spend the next three hours with, for a song called "Bikini Bottom Day" it does nothing to establish just what a Bikini Bottom day actually is.
Instead of seeing the events in the day of the life of a Bikini Bottom-ian unfold to give audiences a sense of what's at stake with such a threatening conflict, the looming threat that plagues the town is introduced five minutes after the curtain rises. Even to fans of the "Spongebob" franchise, it is extremely difficult to become emotionally attached to this new incarnation of the franchise due to its decision to bypass showing the world this incarnation belongs to. Instead of spending time with Spongebob in the Krusty Krab kitchen, or lingering in the treedome as Sandy does karate, or even watching Larry lift weights down by Goo Lagoon, it's a tragic realization that a big-budget Broadway musical devoted to Spongebob Squarepants is more interested in a plot including the character rather than exploring the world the character belongs to. Especially when taken into account how desperate the story is to fill up time with random side quests. Even "The Spongebob Squarepants Movie" spent its first act devoted to the basic operations of the city and how our characters lived day to day. Why a scene of Patrick and Spongebob blowing bubbles as an irritated Squidward attempts to play clarinet wasn't included in this show is truly agonizing to think about.
But at its core, the wacky, wonderful world of "Spongebob Squarepants" is one of raw, unflinching effervescence--a land of nutty antics serving as an excuse to depict an acreage built on the foundation of optimism and silliness. Spongebob, himself, has always been viewed as one of the most lovable and captivating cartoon characters in the history of the medium, and his Broadway musical debut rises to the incredible pressure of maintaining that same level of delightfulness. While lacking in coherent storytelling, "Spongebob Squarepants" repairs the damage with the only factor that truly matters--it's the most fun the uptight, stern, respectable world of Broadway has ever seen.
The excitement begins the second guests earn their first glimpse of the beautifully detailed and shockingly complicated stage design. Enveloping the entire theater in a splash of color and a mass abundance of props, the challenge of transporting Spongebob's fictitious world into our own real world was met in full force. To be invited into a world so far removed from our own is difficult accepting, and this invitation had to succeed in selling the inventiveness of the franchise long before the first note is ever sung. Fortunately, production team David Zinn, Kevin Adams, Peter Nigrini and Walter Trarbach exercised every ounce of creative thinking to adapt Stephen Hillenburg's cartoon world to life right before our eyes.
But equally as impressive as adapting an already existing world was the success of crafting it to abide by already established real-world limitations of a staged musical. There is a lot to look at on this stage and the surprises don't stop until props previously stationary are then used much later as the backdrop for some of the show's most inventive special effects. The highlight being two Rube Goldberg-style machines reaching high points of the stage's edges, occasionally interfering with the events on stage. What started out as a neat prop to enhance an already detailed set is later used as a jaw-dropping interactive element directly affecting the plot. Not since the chandelier in "Phantom" has such a colossal plot point been so effective by hiding directly in plain sight.
But it's when the curtain finally rises on our undersea town that "Spongebob Squarepants" immediately oozes with charm and delight. The blinding use of dazzling colors explodes into a feast for the eyes that only grow in vibrancy as the show moves along. Some sequences are so stunningly rich, even the cartoon can't muster up the same gusto to compare. To say "Spongebob Squarepants" is the most colorful show on Broadway still doesn't quite sell how monumentally satisfying it is to look at. This is pure eye-candy in the sweetest possible sense.
Aside from color, the production team lets audience know right away that the intricate detail of the stage wasn't just a fluke. When the curtain rises, the imaginative costumes and experimental sets confirm the true talent of this creative team. These sets are massive and extraordinarily well crafted. Many sequences taking place on the side of a mountain are constructed as an M.C. Escher painting involving stacked cardboard boxes and ladders protruding from them serve as one of the most daring sets ever assembled, while the out-of-the-box thinking required to realize an ocean home to millions of discovered species shines through in costuming. The sometimes funny, often strange, but always entertaining costumes. Some fish have unnaturally large heads while others have tiny arms that lead to some pretty amusing sight gags. But no greater example of this visual wonder stems from Squidward's four legs in an elongated tap number. It's this kind of inventiveness that would make Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire proud, chuckling all the way.
But not to be outdone by it sights are its glorious, glorious sounds. The main gimmick behind "Spongebob Squarepants" (aside from its sheer existence) stems from its music. Each individual song was written and produced by individual artists recognizable to any fan of the industry including Panic! At The Disco, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, Cindi Lauper, They Might Be Giants and even David Bowie as just a few in a very long list of musical contributors. Originating as a massive gamble, this eclectic collection of songs defies all odds, culminating in one darn great sounding soundtrack--one of the best to come out of Broadway in recent memory. A large majority of these songs succeed not just because of the cleverly conceived lyrics and unpredictable structures, but for the simple reasoning of how catchy and irresistible they are. Much like the set design, the music completes the dramatically difficult assignment of paying homage to a franchise uninterested in playing by the rules.
Whether it be the show-stopping "I'm Not a Loser," the toe-tappingly catchy "Poor Pirates," the emotionally charged "Tomorrow Is," or the best of the bunch--"Bikini Bottom Day," nearly the entire soundtrack is comprised of genuinely fantastic songs to help ease any morning commute, and with the music constantly changing from gospel to rap (that's right. Eat your heart out "Hamilton" fans,) this is a soundtrack truly capable of satisfying anyone, even non-musical theater fans. This collection of songs takes full advantage of the boundless creativity music allows (especially in the intentionally deafening finale,) reminding all music fans why they're fans of music to begin with. The original Broadway cast recording takes listeners on a pleasant roller coaster of emotions, ending with pure happiness personified in the form of song. It's a guarantee a good majority of these songs are destined to earn their spot on any musical theater fan's playlist. They're too spectacular to be ignored, especially by the often pretentious standards of Broadway.
But none of these strengths would even be possible without a cast dedicated to committing 110% in delivering as much energy as humanly possible. While every word written so far comes at the cost of reviewing a production, not once has the experience itself been addressed. Ignoring all fundamental aspects in producing successful musical theater, "Spongebob Squarepants" is the most fun audiences of any age can have on Broadway. The adamant belief the show has in the betterment of society as well as the tremendous love it has for playful, hopeful, optimistic fun would not be as powerful without a cast aware of their importance to devote all energy, passion and creativity into every single performance 8 times a week.
To single any member of this cast out is downright unfair to the entire company as the manic energy and excitement perpetuates through everyone involved, projecting on to an audience open enough to accept the sheer wholesomeness and joy appearing before its very eyes. With the outside world so bitter and hostile, it's evident the cast of "Spongebob Squarepants" understands their job to create an escapist realm of happy endings and silly fun has never been so important. With a defiant voice refusing to succumb to the negativity surrounding them, the individuals responsible for bringing "Spongebob Squarepants" take what they do seriously. This production isn't silly for the sake of being silly, it's as if the very survival of happiness as a human emotion is solely dependent on every tiny detail running smoothly. This isn't a Broadway musical- it's a battle to preserve a simpler time.
As a life-long, die-hard Spongebob fan ever since I witnessed its premiere at five years old, I feel nothing but pride knowing "Spongebob Squarepants" exists. Yes, there are problems, but did I leave "Spongebob Squarepants" disappointed by the bland story or was I enthralled with the sincere wholesomeness while inspired to look for the good in a world consumed with honing in on the bad? Did I groan at the rare gags that didn't work or did the innocent laughter of the younger audience members overpower my cynicism? With the world on the brink of destruction, to escape into a lawless playground uninterested in anything other than having the best day ever, it's a luxury unfortunately hard to come by. And in the wealthy, uptight, rule-enforced land of Broadway, it sure is a wonderful sight to see cast and crew encourage kids of all ages to jump out of their seats to dance in the aisles to some truly awesome tunes. In a time when even fun can sometimes feel manufactured, leave it to the same little guy responsible for "The F.U.N. Song" to show the world just how it's really done.
Spongebob isn't just the hero Bikini Bottom needs, he's the hero our world needs. And judging by the audible tears of joy that echoed throughout the theater as gallons of confetti, beach balls, bubbles, and streamers doused an uproarious, unrestrained audience during the loudest finale I've ever seen performed on any Broadway stage, I suspect this little guy isn't going anywhere. His unwavering joy has a lot of angered hearts to reach. Perhaps the aforementioned folks 15 minutes down the road might be a good place to start...