There are quite a few stars being born right now on the bright, multi-colored stage of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical at the Palace Theatre. For a start, there’s the ebullient, never-to-be-caught-looking-droopy Ethan Slater making his Broadway debut as the eponymous title character, a sponge who lives beneath the ocean.
Slater sings, leaps, and charms us all in his frantic and good-natured mission to save the town of Bikini Bottom from a volcanic catastrophe. This he approaches as the ultimate good soldier, preaching to the frightened and freaking out townsfolk that the key to getting through this potentially deadly geological snafu is to come together and remain optimistic.
And you know what: You believe it, him, and his mission. Are you a child or adult, you might ask. It doesn’t matter—the musical, like its silly, vanilla crude names (Bikini Bottom, Sandy Cheeks), works for whoever is watching. There is no sexual element, or even mild flirtation. Creating and maintaining friendship is the show’s steadfast drumbeat.
SpongeBob’s goodness is of the wide-eyed and true variety. You follow his every thrilling step, right up to the climax where he limbers his amazing body through gaps and slats of what looks like a gigantic mechanical spider’s web to do his best to prevent the explosion, a brilliant feat of directing by Tina Landau who ensures a ranging production makes smooth sense, while remaining an arresting and unpredictable visual delight.
The music in the show is similarly spectacular, loud and a panoply of styles, as you might expect from a songlist that includes the musical and songwriting talents of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler, Lady Antebellum, and They Might Be Giants. This amounts to a dizzying array of pop, rock, and ballads.
We occasionally see Julie McBride, the conductor, buried at the front of the stage, not simply leading the brilliant orchestra but also playing no small part herself, in accepting odd objects or entreaties from the characters. And those sounds are not just musical, but the sounds of the sea, the squelching of SpongeBob, and the stomping of feet.
David Zinn’s costume and scenic design is another star of the show. The sets for SpongeBob SquarePants are everything the sets for Broadway musicals should be, especially ones based on familiar franchises. Zinn gives design hints for what a sponge or starfish, a squid, crab, and lobster looks like, but makes them human too. So, you may have a boxing glove instead of a claw, and for a group of luscious, seductive sea anemones, simply imagine Busby Berkeley at his most glorious: a highpoint, too, for Christopher Gattelli’s imaginative, multi-influenced choreography.
Quite apart from the colorful set itself, with its LED screens and citrus-bright backdrops, there are also two brilliant games of, essentially, Mousetrap set up on either side of the stage to evoke, in the most ingenious, contraption-celebrating way possible, what may happen when there is a volcanic rock fall, brightly colored balls becoming missiles on the stage.
Danny Skinner as SpongeBob’s best buddy Patrick Star the starfish, whose friendship comes to be tested when he becomes the spiritual leader of a group of sardines, is another winning Broadway debut, playing a perfectly judged balance of dopey, hapless, loyal, and brave.
Their adventurous trio is rounded out by the squirrel earthling Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), trying to keep the boys on track while also saving the world and facing the worst of what passes as a convincing and oddly piercing side storyline of racism and bigotry in Bikini Bottom. As most of the show, written by Kyle Jarrow, is filled with puns and silly laughs, the grit of her storyline sticks out whatever your age.
Wait until you hear the creamy, theater-filling, gorgeous belting of Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, an 18-year-old from Atlanta making her Broadway debut: Her character doesn’t know her own power, but we sure do. Her dad is played by Brian Ray Norris, another debut artist giving the production a note of parental irascibility, suitable—you may think—for all the parents in the audience shepherding their delighted children to SpongeBob.
Every musical needs a baddie, and here Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton, accompanied by Stephanie Hsu as Karen The Computer, are determined to obstruct SpongeBob’s efforts to save Bikini Bottom. Both are outsiders, out for vengeance on a world they feel has turned their back on them. There is also the Mayor (Gaelen Gilliland), who—in her bent for authoritarianism and control—may remind you of a certain president. Any likeness seems purely deliberate. Stand by for a piratical sub-story too, which occurs at the beginning and end, initially the show’s only discordant effort, until Bareilles’ song, “Poor Pirates” makes the laboredness worth it.
Finally, unforgettably, there is Gavin Lee as Squidward O’Tentacles. Poor Squidward. All he wants to do is dance. His costume, with four legs is wonderful on its own, and Lee’s command of it a delight of physical comedy. But every time he gets close to performing his song, just being himself, he is scotched. Until, until, until… he is saved by those colorful sea anemones.
This is, on every level, a show that will mean most and make most sense to SpongeBob fans, young and old. I took one with me, and was surrounded by them too. They laughed and cheered, but not madly. They seemed to love how their favorite cartoon characters had been imagined for the stage. The affection for the character seemed matched by the beat of the character they were rooting for: somebody that is humble, that wants to do the right thing, that wants others to do the right thing; and to laugh, dance, and sing as they celebrated the best of human spirit and notion of community in the face of fear, prejudice, and imminent catastrophe. For all that the multi-colored SpongeBob musical cavalcade is a party for the eyes and ears, it is also political—radical even. There’s depth to that squelch.
Darker depths are reached in the folk and punk music-themed Hundred Days at New York Theatre Workshop, which is a 90-minute story in music sung by Abigail and Shaun Bengson and their band members Colette Alexander, Jo Lampert, Dani Markham, and Reggie D. White.
The intertwined stories, co-written by the Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, are autobiographical: We learn of how the Bengsons met, of a traumatizing incident from Abigail’s childhood, of Shaun’s brush with death, and how that leads to the couple contemplating how to live one’s best one hundred days if that is all they have left together. In one scene, we watch the couple foresee growing older, decade by decade: both a witty meditation on maturity and a sober meditation on mortality.
Under Anne Kaufmann’s subtle and clever direction, Abigail and Shaun and the band do not stay still. Designers Kris Stone and Andrew Hungerford have stripped the stage right back, and so its most significant adornments are pendant lights and, in shafts of illuminated, tumbling salt which are as beautiful and haunting as that sounds. Every musician plays powerfully, but it is Abigail’s wail of sadness and pain in her key song that stays with you, piercing the night.