Monday, December 18, 2017

Review: The Fun Show

By Michael Block 

As you walk into the Palace Theater, the iconic homes of the Bikini Bottom denizens are present on stage. There’s an overwhelming sensory overload of colors and sounds as you take in the transformation within the legendary theater. As the audience spills in, it becomes surround sound excitement of eager children. And suddenly, without warning, a pirate named Patchy takes the stage and prepares us all for the evening’s entertainment as we dive into Broadway’s newest smash hit, SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical. Based on the Nickelodeon mega-series, the musical follows the titular character and his pals as they prepare for the end of the world.
Bikini Bottom is in peril. The end of the world is near and a hero is the only thing that can save the world. If the story sounds eerily familiar, the parallels to present day America are certainly existent. As Bikini Bottom learns that a volcano is about to erupt and destroy their beloved town, Spongebob and his best friends Patrick and Sandy are determined to stop it before the lava flows. But this wouldn’t be a Spongebob story if Mr. Krabs wasn’t concerned about his money, Plankton had a devious plan to take over the soon-to-be-over world, and Squidward, Spongebob’s neighbor, wasn’t pessimistic about the entire situation. Having first aired in 1999, Spongebob has been a consistent staple on Nickelodeon with waves of kid and adult fans alike. I for one, was one of the first generation "Spongebob" fans having watched the show during the original season’s iconic moments including the Krusty Krab Pizza and the ear-worm worthy “F.U.N. Song.” But I grew up and Spongebob wasn’t part of my life after high school. So how do you bring a beloved cartoon franchise to Broadway while maintaining the integrity to an audience of fans old and new and theater-goers who may know little to nothing about it? Introduce a fresh new story that is not only relevant but has the power to impact the next generation. And bring in Tina Landau to revolutionize the artform. That works too. Spongebob Sqaurepants the Musical is the biggest party on Broadway. With a book by Kyle Jarrow and an eclectic songbook from a cavalcade of music stars, this show is simply feel-good fun. The story is accessible with touches of maturity. With a source material notorious for creating their own rules, Landau and Jarrow didn’t necessarily always play by rules of logic opting for silly and fun. For example, the prominent plot line for Sandy Cheeks is that she is a land mammal and is ostracized by the sea creatures for being different. In the cartoon, Sandy can only leave her home if she wears a helmet to breath. In the musical, Sandy roams freely around the world sans any breathing apparatus. Perhaps this inclusion could further hammer in her difference from the others in the world. Act I moves in full force as the stakes are high as can be. With Act II focusing on the final hours before doomsday, there are some severe moments where the momentum stalls, partially due to the slower numbers in the score.
photo by Joan Marcus
Not everyone would have been able to bring Spongebob to life. It takes a true brilliant and creative mind. Tina Landau’s imaginative and vivacious vision is the star of the production. With an extraordinary creative team by her side, she made this show a musical playground. Landau helped guide her company to create dimensionality beyond their 2D personas. While there were moments of cartoon stylings onstage, David Zinn’s scenic and costume design captured the essence of the source material while putting his own stamp on the world. Through color and shape, Zinn captured each character using modern fashion. Zinn incorporated giant sized items into his set giving off the idea that these things may have floated down to the ocean floor. It was a black light extravaganza as Kevin Adams’ lights struck the neon accents strewn upon the deep blue sea set. Adams’ design allowed for the fantastical world to feel a bit more exciting and unique. Once upon a time, there was a musical from Nickelodeon’s rival company about some creatures who lived in the sea. The way they moved through their world was through the use of heelies. Cute in concept, poor in execution. So how would these creatures move about? Well, the main difference is in the cartoon, no matter if you were sponge or fish, you walked on your legs. No problems here. But how they dance? The choreography from Christopher Gattelli gave you that big Broadway with a wallop of whimsey. It was choreography full of exuberance. With the score coming from an array of styles, it was inevitable that there would be a clunker or two in the mix. But the true challenge was how to make the material work cohesively. Tom Kitt, who wore a trio of hats as music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger is the true hero of Bikini Bottom. Kitt married the music within the world of the show and managed to get songs like T.I.’s rap number and Lady Antebellum country ditty to live organically in the show without feeling haphazard. Special recognition should be bestowed upon foley designer Mike Dobson. Imagine this show without this element. You can’t, because it wouldn’t work.
There are pretty enormous shoes to fill to portray one of the greatest cartoon characters in history. Spongebob is known for his voice and his slapstick persona. Thankfully, the musical found a rising star to fill the shoes. Ethan Slater is a beacon of brightness as the titular sponge. Slater found Spongebob’s voice impeccably while still getting his moments to showcase himself. With slapstick comedy reminiscent of vaudevillian powerhouses, Slater had a comfort and ease about him as he flung himself around the stage. It’s rare to not only make your Broadway debut in such a giant role, but to do it in such glorious fashion? Ethan Slater has catapulted himself to stardom. Taking on the supporting role in this version of Spongebob, Squidward was the epitome of gloom and doom. And yet when the clarinet-playing squid got his moment in the spotlight, a new side shined. Gavin Lee and his extra set of tentacles tapped his way into our hearts. Another vocal master, Lee’s characterization was the epitome of the doubting neighbor. When it came to having fun, no one had more fun than Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton. Who doesn’t love to play a perpetually losing evil genius? Rounding out the main cast, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks, Danny Skinner as Patrick Star, and Brian Ray Norris as Mr. Krabs easily brought their characters to life. The surprise performance of the night was from a dynamo who literally stops the show as a whale. Jai Len Christine Li Josey took her part and ran during “Daddy Knows Best.” She literally opened her mouth to sing and the audience gasped in astonishment. Her voice is pure gold with a pitch perfect range.
The question is now that Nickelodeon has conquered Broadway, will they follow in their competitor’s footsteps and reimagine other iconic cartoons for the stage? Should Disney be worried? Spongebob Squarepants the Musical is The Lion King of today. It’s planted its flag in the modern technological age of theatrics and will impact the future of innovative storytelling. Spongebob Squarepants is a celebration of what it means to have fun in theater.