Who lives in a Palace along the Main Stem? SpongeBob SquarePants, that’s who, and the musical starring the Nickelodeon mainstay holds water. Years of half-hour shows geared to kids should not a Broadway tuner make. But the indomitable yellow fellow has struck solid gold.
Don’t ask me. Ask my six-year-old son, Ryan. It was his first Broadway show. (2015’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water was his first movie. SpongeBob will surely be his first opera and first ballet if so adapted.) Some of the eminent theater critics near us were pleased to have a longtime viewer nearby to explain some of the nuances of Bikini Bottom’s flora and fauna. It’s hard to know why Sandy, a science-minded squirrel, pals around with SpongeBob, the eternal optimist, and his bestie Patrick, a lovably oafish starfish. Being fairly well versed in the SpongeBob universe … I’m not entirely sure, either. Ryan’s advice, basically, is to surf the wave, and go with it.
In a clamshell, the plot is: Bikini Bottom is threatened by the eruption of Mt. Humungous, an undersea volcano. This is good news for SpongeBob’s pint-sized nemesis, Plankton, who schemes to relocate its citizens to his own town. It’s bad news for SpongeBob, Sandy and Patrick, who endeavor to save Bikini Bottom. But it’s also a final opportunity for everyone to try to achieve their life’s goals before time runs out. The standout in this phylum of dreamers is SpongeBob’s hostile neighbor, Squidward, who has a song, and a dance, deep in his ink-black heart.
In between a revue’s worth of catchy numbers (composers reeled in for the show include Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum and The Flaming Lips), you will find yourself asking: What is the value in dreaming? What is the measure of a true friend in a cruel world? How does Ethan Slater move his eyes like SpongeBob in the cartoon? How does Ethan Slater do any of this? Direct from its Chicago tryout, in his Broadway debut, he’s sensationally appealing, and fearless, in what look to be some pretty hazardous maneuvers. (You try singing atop moving carts.) Danny Skinner’s Patrick and Lilli Cooper’s Sandy are no less winsome. Known for more avant-garde material, director Tina Landau dives right into the zaniness, and hits Bottom – in a good way, I mean.
Credit is also due to Kevin Adams (lighting), Walter Trarbach (sound), Peter Nigrini (projections) and David Zinn (sets and costumes) for their splendidly colorful evocation of this world – a wild mix of homespun elements reminiscent of the undersea dioramas every school kid makes. Speaking of which, Ryan still can’t get over the fabulous dance number (They Might Be Giants’ “I’m Not a Loser”) for the great Gavin Lee, as Squidward. The character has four legs, each of which taps up a storm. Asked how it was done, I said, “Costume effects.” To which Ryan responded, “No, Daddy, the actor actually has all those legs.” SpongeBob SquarePants gives audiences of any age a lot to … absorb.