Let’s begin with a shocker: the pants are not square. They are not rectangular. Really, there’s not a right angle to be found. In SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, the director Tina Landau takes an affectionate though clearly not slavish attitude to the poriferous hero who led the late 90s Nickelodeon cartoon. All of the expected characters are here, in more and less altered form, and the two-and-a-half-hour show has plenty of time to nod to the series’ running jokes. But the most exciting sequences arise when Landau puts cartoon plots aside and concentrates on delivering the sugar-shock visual pleasure.
That plot, which is meant to be high-stakes but comes across as bottom-feeder low, kicks off when the volcanic mount located inconveniently close to SpongeBob’s hometown, Bikini Bottom, threatens to erupt. SpongeBob (a gleeful Ethan Slater), his best friend, Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), and his squirrel pal, Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper, and yes, there’s a squirrel under the sea), devise a scheme to keep it from erupting. But the bitsy supervillain Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) has other plans. There’s also satire aimed at politics and the media; a brief subplot involving Krabby Patty profiteering; and something about a concert – all of it roundly ignorable.
In place of a traditional score, Landau has commissioned a range of musical acts – everyone from Sara Bareilles to Panic! at the Disco, Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman to members of Aerosmith – a move in the spirit of the eclectic soundtrack assembled for the 2004 film. Some of the acts connect with the high-energy dopiness better than the others. John Legend nails it with lyrics featuring couplets like: “Now what’s a macaroni without the cheese/ Or peas in a pod without the peas.”
This raw bar of composers makes for a lack of musical cohesion. And with the exception of the purpose-built introductory song by the comic folky genius Jonathan Coulton, the ragtag score has the book writer, Kyle Jarrow, swimming full out to work the songs into the story. He does it, though often at the expense of narrative drive and character development, elements that more conventional book musical songs would supply.
But more conventional book musicals don’t have David Zinn’s blissfully eye-popping set and costume design, an almost indescribable riot of kelp, seashells, balloons, tinsel and marine detritus that begins in the lobby (where an unusually bounteous merch stand sells T-shirts, CDs and $20 neon socks that say “Life Smells Weird”) and doesn’t quit from there. SpongeBob also benefits from cheerfully hyperactive performances, including a grinning and incongruously muscled Slater, who is alarmingly winning in the title role, and Gavin Lee’s Squidward Q Tentacles, who sidestrokes away with the show in a rapturous tap number with full sea anemone chorus, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli to a double negative of a song by They Might Be Giants.
Design and performances aside, SpongeBob is as perfunctorily entertaining as it is insistently forgettable. Will the friends subdue the volcano? Well, yeah, of course, sure. And hey, look, the merch stand has keychains! It seems telling that the show’s most jubilant and unreservedly satisfying moments are those found in its curtain call, when the air is thick with bubbles and streamers and beach balls and music and color and light and any question of story has subsided back under the waves.