He’s says he’s ‘not a simple sponge’…but he kind of is. And although fans of this season’s new Broadway musical “Spongebob Squarepants” will say that people of all ages can enjoy the show (and that’s true, they will), it was created for kids and that’s who it’s geared towards and that’s who I am and that’s who I care about. Okay not the last two bits I got carried away. “Spongebob” the musical is a lot of fun, and a technical marvel, but it’s a bit of a letdown for adults. And considering adults have to accompany the screaming children (yes they did scream) to the theatre and buy at least two tickets, the profit-making model for this show doesn’t really work. Unlike Disney shows from the past, the adults aren’t given equal consideration here, and so few adults will be present without children (I think my sister-in-law and I were the only unaccompanied adults when we saw it). And while it’s very sad news, I’m not surprised that the show just announced that it will be closing in September, because it takes a lot of rich people to decide to spend $100+ on taking their kids to see this when they’ve been watching the TV show for free for years.
This musical tells the story of this simple sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea (SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS okay that part I knew before too who DOESN’T know the theme song and then it goes like abhorrent and boorish and porous is he!!) in a cute little under the sea town called Bikini Bottom and he has other species friends and bosses and frenemies and it’s all cute. BUT THEN, they get news that a nearby volcano is going to erupt and destroy their town! Oh noes. Almost everyone agrees that they should leave town (I mean, right?) before doomsday. The villains, Plankton and his robot (?) wife, offer that they should put all town residents in an escape pod to get to their next home, and everyone is like wow great idea but Plankton and sea-Janet really just want everyone in one confined space so they can hypnotize them and convince them to eat at their failing restaurant instead of at the very popular Krusty Krabs, where Spongebob works as a fry cook. (How do they fry under water.) Spongebob is the only one who doesn’t want to flee the coming horror, because he simple. He thinks they should fight for their home, and so he sets off on a mission to save the town in the two days he has before the predicted eruption. Meanwhile, the rest of the town plans a concert to raise money to pay for the escape pod.
Okay fine, a little silly but a decent story choice for a Spongebob musical! But guess what, it’s also quite political and timely. While Bob Esponja is like hmm how do I stop a volcano, maybe with French fries???, the rest of the town is looking for someone to blame for everything, as most people do when something goes wrong (except unlike in real life, the people looking to blame an innocent person aren’t also the ones responsible). So the townsfolk decide to blame Sandy Cheeks, the smart adorable FEMALE squirrel, all things that powerful people despise, for the impending destruction. Of course, blame the smart woman! They choose her because she’s a land mammal, and so it’s easy to turn the town against her with chants of how she doesn’t belong there. I KNOW, it’s pretty darn topical. Also, Sandy is played by Lilli Cooper (the great), who is black, so it’s really poignant to show her being ostracized so the mostly white kids (hopefully) get the connection and see that that's bad. Even though the town is trying to drive Sandy out, Spongebob convinces her to help him save the day, since Sandy is a brilliant scientist (and the real hero of the show). She creates a device that when dropped into the mouth of the volcano will turn the lava flow into harmless bubbles and I am here for that kind of scientific discovery, Elon. Spongebob volunteers to be the sad sack who has to drop the machine into the volcano, so a lot of the second act is him climbing the volcano/the little moving set piece. Obviously, he makes it to the top and saves the day and the town, and the town lauds him and forgives Sandy for being black but literally gives her nothing else, no acclaim for being the actual savior of everything and so I was a little salty and kind of wish that the town actually was destroyed because fuck that, this badass girl is a squirrel who is a scientist and she’s merely ALLOWED TO KEEP LIVING IN THE TOWN WHILE THE STUPID WHITE MAN FRY COOK IS CONSIDERED THE HERO OF IT ALL? please. Anyway that’s just my take on it, because of course Bob was going to be the hero in the show named after him, but how good would it have been to turn the tables on him and be like ‘thanks for doing the manual labor portion of the job now let’s have a parade for this amazing black girl!’ but no. So that’s the plot and it’s cute but it gets a little long considering it’s a kids show. The second act needed to be shorter.
So, full truth here. The best reviewed thing about this show, besides its set design, is ts leading spongeman, Ethan Slater, in a miraculous Broadway debut that has him singing, dancing, and pretty much jumping up and down and all around like a dynamo/bouncing ball/firework/sponge for hours and hours and keeping those energy levels up and keeping the rest of his cast energized and engaged and just being adorable and amazing and Tony-worthy, so everyone said. He was 98% of the reason I saw the show, the other 2% being for the set and the 12 Tony nominations it received. But apparently, those energy levels are real hard to keep up for 8 shows a week for months on end, because starting in about May, Ethan low-key started taking off at least one performance a week. And I fully understand why, and I appreciate that anyone doing this role full time would have to do that to stay alive because it requires absolute insane physicality from its star. But they should have set a defined performance and a defined alternate, as they do for most stars doing 7 of 8 shows. The ‘random’ performance he took off that week was my performance. Like, fuck. Curtis Holbrook, the understudy, did a marvelous job and I had zero complaints, but I didn’t get to see the performance that everyone was raving about. I can’t imagine what Ethan could do differently, though, to make people think he was robbed of a Tony. It’s a great, meaty, exhausting role, but it’s no great feat of acting.
And the cast is great all-around, really, with nice performances from Cooper and Skinner and a standout one from tap-dancing phenomenon Gavin Lee, as Squidward. He wears a costume that gives him four legs, and he brings the house down with a long extravagant tap number. It’s the best part of the show, rightly so given that he’s the one true vet up there. The tap dance alone that he does is difficult and impressive enough, but the fact that he’s doing it with four legs – and making it seem effortless – is astounding. There’s also a standout vocal performance from Jai’len Christine Li Josey, an 18-year-old girl who won the 2014 Jimmy Awards, kind of the Tonys for high school musical theatre performers. Her voice is the kind that’s a gift from the gods. She’s absolutely insane. She wasn’t the most natural actor, but with that voice I’m sure she will have a strong career, one that I hope includes “Seasons of Love” soloist among other bigger parts.
The biggest news surrounding this production is what I consider one of its biggest flaws: that its score was compiled by a seemingly endless list of super famous musicians, including Sara Bareilles, David Bowie (RIP hope this isn’t the last thing he did), John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Steven Tyler, Cyndi Lauper, I mean it’s very ridiculous that this is a list of composers for one Broadway show. Each musician wrote one song in the show, and while it’s fun to be like ‘Oh this song was written by…THE RAPPER T.I.???? and this one by…Panic! At the Disco?????', that kind of set up does not make for a cohesive musical. It makes for a disjointed one, with no real common threads that a musical needs to succeed as a whole and not just be a concert set against a story. Fun fact: For a long time my dad thought it was Panic! At the Drive-in because Sirius radio only showed the band's name up to D and he assumed it stood for drive-in. The best songs by far were “Bikini Bottom Day”, by Jonathan Coulton, and Bareilles’ pirate song, which had nothing to do with the plot and was used as a silly intermission ender.
I think if the score was written by one great composing team, the musical would have been better and lasted longer, because every visual aspect of the production is superb. David Zinn’s set design is a marvel, and he rightly won the Tony for it. He uses everyday items – kind of like what you would (too easily) find floating in the ocean as garbage – to create this seascape of underwater magic that still feels familiar. His best work is the enormous Rube Goldberg contraptions on the sides of the stage that come into play at specific moments, huge devices that use little balls to spin wheels to drop levers to push handles &c &c to spit beach balls at the cast or something like that. It was the best.
The amazing visual treats also include Christopher Gattelli’s fun and inspired choreography, with magical moments like when the cast holds yellow sponges in the dark to e.g. make Bob’s flying cape in “Simple Sponge”. That number was actually gorgeous. And everything is handled masterfully by Tina Landau’s direction. Bringing this kind of show to life is difficult, and she deserves all the acclaim, like Sandy, for bringing it all together. Even the costumes were phenomenal, using regular clothes for the most part to evoke the familiar characters. Spongebob doesn’t wear a big suit like he’s just outside the theatre door hounding tourists in Times Square. He just wears a yellow shirt and red tie and plaid pants – and it works brilliantly. Patrick the starfish (a lovable Danny Skinner) wears an oversize pink tee shirt paired with green shorts in another so-simple-it’s-brilliant technique.
So the visuals are great. But it’s the other senses that get attacked. It’s the loudest musical ever. The fact that they were nominated for a Sound Design Tony is 100% due to the fun special effects produced live by the man (sorry can’t find your name) in the first balcony box with a keyboard equipped with the craziest sounds, like bubbles and squeaks and other noises of all sorts that aren’t British foods. That’s all done very well and amusingly but it gets to be a little too much. But who can even pay attention to them when the theatre is full of ear-damaging speakers that make everything so loud it would be bad even with earplugs? It was painful at times. And I’ve heard from people who sat in different sections that they could barely hear it! What is going on with the sound in this theatre? It sounds like a g-d mess. Is it so loud in most places to keep children’s attention? Maybe? but damaging everyone’s eardrums seems like not the right solution. And if kids are going to lose focus, having everything be super loud isn’t going to help. The rock concert that Squidward stages showed this more than ever, because a rock band plays and it's just awfully loud and I wanted to scream get off my lawn.
I mean I’m starting to get too deep into the ranty ravey portion of my theatre discussions, and we don’t need to do that. “Spongebob” was a fun confection of a Broadway show, but I wish that they paid more attention to making it a fully realized show that adults would enjoy and not just kids, and that includes paying more attention to the crux of a musical – the score. As it is, it's cheerful and fun and it's a helluva lot better than anyone predicted when they first announced a Spongebob musical, but I wish it was truly great.
If you go, turn off your phone and don’t bring loud food and drinks in or treat it like you’re at a party, because you’re not a monster. But don’t expect anyone else to follow your lead.