SpongeBob SquarePants Delights Critics in Broadway Debut

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

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.”

Sesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton (center) and company. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.

The costumes

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.”

Pictured: The company of SpongeBob SquarePants. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017

The music

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.

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The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Records Most Watched Week Ever

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

Like a farmer welcoming rainclouds, Trevor Noah has turned something most of us would prefer to do without – the unending tumult pouring from Washington, D.C. – into a building block for something essential: humor.

It is a resource that appears to be especially welcome at this moment of astonishing political turmoil. Last week was The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’s most watched ever, with 1.045 million total viewers, a 36 percent increase over the same week last year. The achievement nudges the program closer to recording eight consecutive months of year-over-year growth among total viewers.

Noah may have had a little help driving ratings. “Noah’s ratings run this week is most likely due in no small part to the problems plaguing Trump,” wrote Variety’s Joe Otterson, referring to the president’s dismissal of the FBI director, ongoing investigations into Russian influence in the presidential election, and other issues.

Indeed, as the pace of news has accelerated under the new administration, The Daily Show has adapted. “Things have definitely sped up,” head writer Zhubin Parang told Vulture’s Jen Chaney in February. “We used to be able to predict what the show would be the afternoon before the day, and now we just can’t ever assume that the show we have planned at 7 p.m. the night before is going to be anything like the show that’s ultimately going to air the next day.”

What Noah and team do ultimately air is unfailingly an incisive examination of the day’s headlines. When news broke early last week, for example, that President Trump disclosed classified information to high-ranking Russian officials on a White House visit, Noah was ready:

“This sounds like a story that we would invent, right?” an astonished Noah asked his audience. “Trump invites the Russians into the Oval Office, and then, in his meeting, starts bragging, ‘I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.’” Watch the full take below:

The day after that, the Justice Department appointed a special counsel – former FBI chief Robert Mueller – to investigate allegations that Trump campaign aides had colluded with Russia to influence last fall’s presidential election.

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Four Reasons Critics Love Comedy Central’s Detroiters

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom
Detroiters - 824

Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson have inherited a once-great Detroit ad agency on Comedy Central’s hilarious new series, Detroiters. Photo from Comedy Central Press.

They crash the steakhouse luncheons of high-flying auto executives. They know the local garbage truck drivers by name. They’ve devised elaborate rituals around bathroom breaks.

They are Detroiters, and they have landed at Comedy Central with a new half-hour show, bringing delighted reviews along with them.

Starring Sam Duvet (Sam Richardson – Richard Splett on Veep) and Tim Cramblin (Tim Robinson – Saturday Night Live), both alumni of the famed Second City comedy club (watch them here), and native Detroiters themselves, the comedy delivers plenty to satisfy critics, fans, and native Michiganders:

1) It’s hilarious

The duo inherited a Detroit advertising business when Tim’s father “went insane.” Their office, bedecked in the drab and lightless décor of some long-ago era, has been emptied of most employees and all major clients, which once included such blue chips as Budweiser and Delta Air Lines.

Despite occasional zealous pursuits of big-name clients, they remain hapless and amusingly frustrated. It often feels as though Sam and Tim are a couple of amped-up teenagers left unsupervised while dad is off for a brief business meeting – in the first episode, the duo is sidetracked from an urgent deadline by an extended experiment to shatter the “unbreakable” glass panel beside Tim’s office door.

Such mishaps are unending. They run over a Chrysler executive on a way to pitch him. Sam is mistaken for a male prostitute – and rolls with it. A shoot promoting a mirror store is botched – because Sam and Tim are reflected in all of the shots. Their film school editor transforms a kitschy hot tub commercial into an art-house meditation on life and middle age and makes their client – Eddie Champagne, the hot tub king of Detroit – look like a creep.

That Sam and Tim remain so rambunctiously unselfconscious throughout these shenanigans, and that they keep trying to win business and remain friends, balances the absurdity with an endearing dimension. “The new Comedy Central series … is also an opportunity for Richardson and Robinson to dive into absurd situations and physical comedy with an admirable lack of inhibition,” writes Vulture’s Jen Chaney. “There is no ridiculous moment whose boundaries can’t be pushed that much further, into even more ridiculous territory.”

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