SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical review – sugar-shock visual pleasure

The Palace Theatre, New York

An eclectic selection of original songs, written by everyone from John Legend to Aerosmith, meshes awkwardly with vibrant production design in this entertaining yet forgettable musical

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.

Contributor

Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Bowie joins roster of stars writing songs for SpongeBob musical
Cyndi Lauper and John Legend will also compose pieces for soundtrack of new stage production

Tim Jonze

01, Sep, 2015 @4:56 PM

Article image
Jagged Little Pill review – Alanis musical hits Broadway with a bang
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody has brought Alanis Morissette’s music to the stage with a contrived yet hugely entertaining show

Alexis Soloski

06, Dec, 2019 @2:00 AM

Article image
Michael Jackson musical to hit Broadway in 2020
A stage show about the King of Pop’s life featuring the biggest hits from his catalogue is now in development

Jake Nevins

19, Jun, 2018 @3:35 PM

Article image
The Cher Show review – Broadway musical is a mixed bag of pop excess
A jukebox ode to the megastar contains some dazzling numbers but suffers from some clumsy storytelling

Alexis Soloski

04, Dec, 2018 @2:00 AM

Article image
Little Did I Know: how a Broadway-aiming musical became a hit podcast
An accomplished group of creatives have turned a splashy musical into a new podcast at a time when theater fans need it the most

Alexis Soloski

14, Apr, 2020 @3:17 PM

Article image
King Kong review – Broadway kills the beast in monstrously bad musical
Despite the spectacle of a 2,400lb puppet, a shambolic production doesn’t know what to do with him and any magic quickly evaporates

Alexis Soloski

09, Nov, 2018 @3:00 AM

Article image
Princess Diana musical to premiere on Netflix before Broadway debut
In an unprecedented move, postponed musical Diana will be filmed without an audience and shown on Netflix before its new official opening in 2021

Benjamin Lee

12, Aug, 2020 @2:55 PM

Article image
Disney's Frozen musical opens on Broadway: 'More nudity than expected'
After a trial run in Denver, the stage adaptation of the animated smash hits New York and a passionate fanbase is already out in force – and in costume

Alexis Soloski

23, Feb, 2018 @4:31 PM

Article image
Broadway in 2020: big stars, big revivals and that Michael Jackson musical
After another smash hit year at the box office, the next 12 months promises more of the same ... with added controversy

Alexis Soloski

02, Jan, 2020 @4:45 PM

Article image
Girl from the North Country review: Conor McPherson's grim, ravishing Bob Dylan musical
The acclaimed playwright has used the songbook of Bob Dylan to create an overstuffed yet often transcendent 30s-set Broadway show

Alexis Soloski

06, Mar, 2020 @2:30 AM