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SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical

Ethan Slater                             photos by Joan Marcus




                                              by Deirdre Donovan


The 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 . . .”


Full 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 everybody.


At 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.


The 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


If 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.


Go 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?


While 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 himself.


The 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. 


Gavin Lee and cast


Another 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.


Lilli Cooper, Ethan Slater and  Danny SKinner

Danny 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.


Let’s 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 got smarts.


The 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.


The 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.


The 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 population.


Optimism 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 universe.


Perhaps 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.


“Everything 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.



Open run.

The Palace Theatre, located at 1564 Broadway (at 47th Street).

For more information, phone 877-250-2929 or


Running time:  2 hours; 30 minutes with one intermission.