Slater photos by Joan Marcus
by Deirdre Donovan
first ripples of delight from the audience at the Palace Theatre, where the
musical SpongeBob SquarePants has just washed up, is prompted by David
Zinn’s jaw-dropping nautical set: an imaginative replica of what life beneath
the waves would look like. The second one occurs a beat later when a foghorn
alarm clock sounds and SpongeBob (the wondrous Ethan Slater) snaps awake and
shouts: “Full steam ahead . . .”
steam ahead may well be the motto of this innovative new show. It transforms
the animated sea creature who first appeared on the popular Nickelodeon
television series into a three-dimensional character on Broadway. Now in an
open run, SpongeBob SquarePants is just what families have been waiting
for: an adventure-packed musical that includes an affirmative message for
first blush, SpongeBob might seem too zany a musical for the majority of
theatergoers. After all, how could watching a reimagined cartoon character
(the original SpongeBob was dreamed up by marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg)
be worth the investment of over two and a half hours of your life? Well,
banish your fears. This musical celebrates in a dozen-plus songs all the
reasons we must live and let live in the world. Tolerance is the operative word
here. And SpongeBob becomes hero-on-the-spot in Bikini Bottom when the stakes
are raised, catastrophe looms, and doom appears to be on the horizon.
ingenious script by Kyle Jarrow, the feel-good songs by Grammy Award winning
artists, the mind-boggling set and costume design by David Zinn, and the
sparkling choreography by Christopher Gattelli are all something to tickle your
fancy. Conceived and directed by the inventive Tina Landau, this musical is
not only entertaining but one of the most inventive productions that Broadway
has ever seen.
you are unfamiliar with the character SpongeBob, you can easily get up to speed
on the watery wight by watching a few episodes online from the original
Nickelodeon series. What you will learn is that the dude is likable, loyal,
adventurous, and has an endless supply of optimism in his spongey core.
on—watch a few more SpongeBob episodes, and you are sure to get a better
sense of his marine habitat and what makes him tick. To wit: SpongeBob lives
in a pineapple home under the sea, has a job as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab
fast-food restaurant, pals around with the starfish Patrick Star, and owns a
pet snail named Gary who “meows” like a cat. What’s not to like?
SpongeBob started out his aquatic life as a mere cartoon character, for the
purposes of the Broadway musical he has morphed into a human being. Unlike
other fantasy-inflected musicals (think Shrek), there’s no wacky-looking
beast stomping around the stage. While the character SpongeBob is still
referred to as a yellow sponge to satisfy the narrative-at-large, what one sees
on stage is the performer Slater sans gimmicky costume and looking totally like
musical is perfectly cast. Slater, as SpongeBob, seems born to play the role. Slater
is making his Broadway debut here, and what a debut it is. Dressed in a sunny
yellow shirt, red tie, plaid slacks and suspenders, Slater gives an
unforgettable performance that is sure to be remembered when Tony Award season
rolls around this spring.
Lee and cast
impressive performance is turned in by Gavin Lee as the cynic Squidward Q.
Tentacle who greets all with the sour maxim: “Another day, another migraine!”
Lee infuses lots of vinegar into his character. But keep watching Lee’s
killjoy and you’ll be amazed at the fancy footwork he uncorks in Act 2 with his
tap dancing number “I’m not a Loser,” which he performs in tandem with the Sea
Anemones. Reminiscent of when Peter Allen would dance with the Rockettes on
stage, Lee’s hoofing in this kick-line dance routine is second to none.
Cooper, Ethan Slater and Danny SKinner
Skinner is just right as SpongeBob’s BFF Patrick Star. Skinner’s character
might always be a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but he’s the most lovable
character in the story. By all means, watch out for his airborne moments in
Act 2. There’s no doubt that Patrick, as deftly performed by Skinner, becomes
as dramatically vital to the story as salt is to the sea.
not forget Lilli Cooper, as Sandy Cheeks, the only land mammal in this
nautical-themed musical. Cooper is ideal playing Sandy Cheeks, the Texas squirrel whose scientific mind invents an ingenious bubble device that hopefully will
prevent Mount Humongous from spewing orange rivers of lava throughout Bikini
Bottom. Say what you will, this landlubber gal with a penchant for acorns has
ensemble acting is superb. Over 20 able performers inhabit a motley crew of
sea creatures, not to mention Patchy the Pirate (Jon Rua) who makes cameo appearances
throughout the show. There’s always something, in fact, bobbing to the surface
here. Whether it’s the Sardines Corps singing “Super Sea Star Savior” or the
Electric Skates crooning “Bikini Bottom Boogie,” you are sure to be pulled in
hook, line, and sinker by this corps who can belt out one tune after another.
composer Tom Kitt is just the man to do the quadruple job of musical
supervision, orchestration and arrangements, plus write some additional music
for SpongeBob. Having worked on both small and large canvasses, Kitt
manages to bring harmony to the wild and wooly episodes of this looney
production, relying on the legendary talents of Yolanda Adams, Jonathan
Coulton, Cyndi Lauper, They Might Be Giants, and David Bowie—to mention only a
few of the legendary artists on board.
musical’s theatrical effectiveness is due in large part to the direction of
Landau, who is able to gather all the multiple strands of this
multi-million-dollar behemoth and integrate them into a whole. An ensemble member
of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, she is no stranger to New York stages. She has
staged a plethora of productions (remember her Old Hats at the
Signature, starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner?) at prestigious venues in the
city. In this current project, Landau shows that she is capable of pulling off
an elaborate production that can appeal to a broad cross-section of the
is de rigueur here. And with its upbeat songs--"Bikini Bottom
Day,” “Hero is My Middle Name,” and “Best Day Ever"--it's easy to get into
the swim of this buoyant musical. There’s over a dozen musical numbers to punctuate
this two-and-a-half-hour show—and not a dud among them. Okay, it could be
trimmed down a whiff, especially considering that a large portion of the
audience are youngsters between the ages of 5 to 11. But this is nit-picking
at a musical that is pretty much a flawless presentation of an enchanted marine
the key strength to this musical is that it’s not mawkish, overly sentimental,
or old-fashioned at all. But then how could it be with the likes of the
villainous Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) and his partner-in-crime Karen the
Computer (Stephanie Hsu) splashing up trouble everywhere. SpongeBob may have a
self-esteem problem when we first meet him in the story. But after dealing
with the malicious-minded Plankton and his wife, he learns how to rise to the
occasion, in every sense, with a little help from his friends in Bikini Bottom.
gets better if you keep on trying,” notes the brainy scientist Sandy Cheeks in
the closing scene. Obviously, the stage journey of SpongeBob SquarePants is
a good example of her adage. This new wave musical first delighted audiences
in Chicago and now thrills all who visit the Palace Theater on the Great
White Way. But this show is far more than a spectacular display of special
effects or a chance to catch some original songs from famous pop artists. Indeed,
it can send you home with a renewed appreciation for the power of optimism.
Palace Theatre, located at 1564 Broadway (at 47th Street).
more information, phone 877-250-2929 or
time: 2 hours; 30 minutes with one intermission.