Following an audience-wowing run in Chicago, Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants The Broadway Musical officially landed in New York City last week, greeted by captivated fans and an ocean’s worth of critical praise.
“Skeptics better tie themselves to the mast if they want to survive this tempest of effervescent candy-for-the-spirit,” writes Vulture’s Sara Holdren. “Even if you venture into the Palace feeling Squidward -ish, it’s a truly gloomy soul who’ll be able to leave without mirroring the dopey grin with which the show’s absorbent yellow hero responds to his buddy’s existential angst…”
The Tina Landau-directed story, in brief: while the ever-more-fiercely trembling Mount Humungous threatens to bury Bikini Bottom beneath a tsunami of lava and ash, a number of subplots playfully expose the absurdity of contemporary real-world issues in the non-animated realm in which we all dwell. Sandy the squirrel faces land-animal xenophobia from her sea fellows. Plankton’s attempts to win business through hypnosis has echoes of an online fake-news sales job. “Tidal warming” threatens to upend daily life.
With music from an all-star jukebox’s worth of musicians, a riotous set and costumes perfectly channeling the cartoon’s manic aesthetic, and a cast preternaturally suited to their undersea identities, the show is a complete work, tuned both to its obvious target audience of children and to theatergoers entranced by the spectacle of big-time Broadway productions.
Critics, many of whom expressed only a vague familiarity with the show prior to stepping into the Palace theater, were delighted. Here’s a sampling of what they liked:
The set design
Twenty years in, SpongeBob fans are well acquainted with the whimsical animated set pieces that constitute Bikini Bottom. But even long-time observers will be delighted by the maritime decor, a boldly colored and meticulously curated bazaar of pool noodles, floaty-devices, and the discarded effluvia of the consumerist human world above – shopping carts, umbrellas, surfboards and more.
“[Set designer] David Zinn, a master designer, seems to have been fed an herb meal before devising the set and costumes that transform the noble old Palace into a trippy mindf!ck that’s equal parts Rube Goldberg and Electric Circus,” writes Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard. “I doubt there are any colors on view that exist in nature, or that you or I have seen since black light met ingested pholiotina cyanopus.”
Bikini Bottom is crowded with characters of odd shape and dimension, and Zinn, who in addition to set designer is also the show’s costume designer, does not try to interpret this cartoon fantasyland literally. Instead, the actors’ decidedly human-proportioned outfits match their character’s familiar color palette, evoking their essence while individual performances complete the profile.
“The production smartly shuns prosthetics to match the characters’ looks from the animated series. Instead, undersea denizens are given human form but retain telltale traits,” writes Joe Dziemianowicz in The New York Daily News. “It’s a smart decision that broadens accessibility — fans and non-fans, adults and kids.”
SpongeBob’s Broadway debut packs an outsized catalogue of that key element to so many big-time stage productions: music. The play brims with songs – many of them originals created for this production – by a deep well of musicians: Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, T.I., David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley.
Music Supervisor Tom Kitt and conductor Julie McBride expertly synchronize this wildly diverse playlist with the galloping onstage action and stage sounds.
“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,” writes Tim Teeman in The Daily Beast.
Standing out from this firecracker of a playlist is a performance of They Might Be Giant’s I’m Not a Loser by the ever-salty Squidward (Gavin Lee), meticulously choreographed by Christopher Gattelli.
“Perhaps the most ingenious costume is that of blue-haired Squidward, whose four-legged pants move with a hilarious rubberized jauntiness, not least in his showstopping number I’m Not a Loser, the highlight of the musical… here he taps with an extra set of limbs in a giddy extravaganza backed by a fan-dancing chorus of gender-ambiguous sea anemones,” David Rooney writes in The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s sheer bliss.”
So exactly how do you interpret a cartoon sponge/octopus/swimming squirrel in human form sans literal costuming? You carefully choose actors who can channel the spirit of this beloved crew in such a way that renders literal getups moot.
“As that sponge, the beaming, ebullient Ethan Slater couldn’t be better cast in his Broadway debut,” writes Sara Holdren in Vulture. “He’s so malleable in voice and body that he feels like a living Animaniac. With nothing actually square about him … he captures SpongeBob’s signature hand-flapping walk, his springiness, his array of googly-eyed expressions, and, most important, his unceasingly sunny attitude. … Slater shines, and he doesn’t shine alone. SpongeBob’s cast is uniformly outstanding — and not since Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 have I seen a company so clearly having such a great time.”
All of the abovementioned elements collide onstage in a frantic and delightful spectacle that seemed to mint SpongeBob fans out of those who had been heretofore unacquainted with Bikini Bottom.
“…the wonders of Tina Landau’s production pour from the stage in a ravishing stream of color and invention that sucks you into its merry, silly currents,” writes Adam Feldman in Time Out New York.
Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard adds: “The last 40 minutes or so of Spongebob SquarePants is such mind-rattling, eye-popping, rib-tickling fun that maybe I should just stop right there.”