Yes, this is a show children and parents can enjoy – even adults on their own. For 18 years on Nickelodeon – and I admit to having never watched an episode – the animated television series never generated the buzz of its immediate predecessor South Park, which was aimed at a more adult audience. Nonetheless, it has spawned two movies, a video game and now a Broadway show.
Credit the creative team for taking SpongeBob and his friends as a starting point for a ferociously energetic marathon of singing, dancing and hilarious special effects. None of this is overwhelming, just non-stop entertainment that never goes too far, but just far enough to eclipse the simple story (an earthquake and volcanic eruption that threatens Bikini Bottom’s existence) and keep you smiling.
Soon after the vibrant opening number, “Bikini Bottom Day,” SpongeBob and his aquatic friends shudder when they feel the first ripples of the ocean floor. Soon they learn that “smoke has been sighted at the top of Mount Humongous – the long-slumbering volcano of doom.” Sandy, the squirrel (more on mammal-phobia later), does some calculations and predicts that volcano is “gonna erupt.” A Doomsday clock (remember the ticking clock and Captain Hook – but that’s another seafaring adventure) gives Bikini Bottom residents 29 hours until – oh, I can’t say! Schemes are hatched to stop the eruption, ranging from a human sacrifice to using science (guess, which wins?).
Along the way we witness more than a dozen musical numbers with choreography (by Christopher Gattelli) as varied as a four-legged tap dancer (Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles) backed by a Busby Berkley kick line to breakdancing to a heavy metal band on skateboards. The songs are by various pop-rock stars such as John Legend, Steven Tyler and They Might Be Giants. All this is set in a colorful underwater world where everything is larger than life accompanied by costumes that convey the cartoon characters while still allowing the actors to have human forms (credit designer David Zinn).
Newcomer to Broadway, Ethan Slater, gives an amazing performance as SpongeBob. This guy’s got talent coming out of every squeeze. An exuberant Danny Skinner (Patrick Star) shows why he’s SpongeBob’s best friend. Kelvin Moon Loh (Perch Perkins) glitters as the Asian announcer of doom. Jai’len Christine Li Josey’s (Pearl Krabs) voice thrills. Lilli Cooper (Sandy Cheeks) is smart and sensitive as an outsider – a land mammal in aquatic territory who feels the rough waters from the Bikini Bottom townspeople. This glimpse of prejudice is one of many sub-themes (good and evil, right and wrong) that drip through the proceedings but get washed away by the sheer entertainment value of the production.
Director Tina Landau has taken two-dimensional characters and transformed them, not only to three-dimensional humans, but into an all-immersive Broadway musical, which, while light on substance, never fails to captivate.
George A. Wachtel is president of Audience Research & Analysis, a New York City-based market research firm specializing in arts and entertainment.
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