Theatre in Review: SpongeBob SquarePants (The Palace Theatre)
I think it was the late Clive Barnes who, when lost for something to say about some frail attraction or another, would write, "You'll like it -- if it's the sort of thing you like." I always turned up my nose at such tautologies; it was the critic's job to have an opinion, and, dammit, he or she should have one. Well, pride goeth before a fall, and, having seen SpongeBob SquarePants, I am exercising what I now call the Barnes Option: Families with small children, and millennials who grew up loving the Nickelodeon series of the same name, should have a delightful time at this new musical. Anyone else should give the Palace Theatre a wide, wide berth. In other words, you'll love this -- if this is the sort of thing you love.
There's fun for all in David Zinn's production design, which turns the entire theatre into Bikini Bottom, the undersea home of SpongeBob and his mostly fishy friends. The auditorium is ringed in rain curtains, adding a touch of tinselly gaiety that is accentuated by outbreaks of tubing and giant globes all over the proscenium. (From certain angles, the set looks like something cooked up by an eight-year-old Dale Chihuly, left alone with plenty of materials and no adult supervision.) Gaggles of plastic cups are arranged in mock starbursts; tiny starburst chandeliers, looking like knockoffs of those at the Metropolitan Opera, dangle overhead. Onstage, a passerelle dips in the center, providing ample room for skateboard action. The curtain rises to reveal a two-level structure built out of oil drums, providing the basic structure of Bikini Bottom, with at least four portals lined in LED tape. (The production must use several miles of that particular light source.) Throw in several tons of confetti and plentiful bubbles, and beach balls tossed into the audience -- not to mention a chorus line of pirates complaining that, really, they are deeply misunderstood -- and you have the birthday party of any nine-year-old's dreams.
Right and left of the proscenium are rickety Rube Goldberg contraptions that deliver "boulders" -- giant beach balls -- in moments of stress. This last detail is important, because the musical's plot centers on the existential threat posed to Bikini Bottom by a belching volcano. Under the rule of a corrupt, none-too-bright mayor, the inhabitants are persuaded to sign on to a scheme to flee en masse, via an "escape pod." SpongeBob, however, wants to save the day in the company of his friends Patrick Star and Sandy Cheeks, Bikini Bottom's local brainiac, who has a scientifically sound plan (well, sort of) to contain the eruption. But Patrick gets taken up by a school of sardines, who think he is a guru -- I can't explain this, please don't ask me to try -- and he prefers to waste time basking in their adoration. And Sandy, an intellectual squirrel from Texas, is ostracized by everyone, in one of many scenes designed to remind us that you've got to be carefully taught to hate and fear, etc., etc. (You may wonder what a squirrel is doing five fathoms deep. I certainly did. If you keep asking questions like that, you're not going to have a good time at SpongeBob SquarePants.)
Burdened with a silly, predictable plot and so many lessons about tolerance, kindness, and community spirit that audience members should get certificates authorizing them to teach elementary school civics, this is a musical designed for true SpongeBob believers only. If you have a low tolerance for lines like "I'm as serious as a guacamole shortage at a taco party!" you're definitely in the wrong place. Then there's this gem: "Mr. Krabs says I'm not manager material." "Manager material? You mean like polyester?" Or this: "Gimme another kelp juice, Johnny. Carpe diem!" "Who're you calling a carp?" Clearly, Kyle Jarrow's book leaves no starfish unturned in his search for the lamest possible gag.
Zinn, who also designed the costumes, wisely decided not to make the actors into simulacra of their cartoon counterparts, which at least gives them the chance to win the audience over on their own terms. As the title character, Ethan Slater, making his Broadway debut, brings a nice voice, a penchant for eccentric moves, and all the good will at his disposal, which is saying something. But he isn't well-supported: The character is a blank, a Cheshire cat smile with nothing to back it up. Much of the time, he is overshadowed by the supporting cast, who have more to work with. Danny Skinner preens amusingly as Patrick, surrounded by his sardine admirers; he also shares a decent ballad, "(I Guess I) Miss You," -- by John Legend -- with SpongeBob, a lament for their lost friendship. Lilli Cooper's Sandy Cheeks offers the slyest, funniest performance in the show, getting laughs with deadpan, throwaway line readings while all around her the other actors are emoting to the nth degree. As the evil Sheldon Plankton, who believes he can rule the Bikini Bottomites by manipulation or hypnosis or something -- it's never clear -- Wesley Taylor is stuck with a mock Dr. No characterization -- complete with Nehru jacket and decadent, unplaceable accent -- which is Jarrow's most threadbare invention. However, Stephanie Hsu is amusing as Sheldon's wife, a computer. (There you go, asking questions again.) As Eugene Krabs, owner of The Krusty Krab, the restaurant that employs SpongeBob, Brian Ray Norris is trapped in a dull father-daughter subplot, but his offspring, Pearl, played by the big-voiced Jai'Len Christine Li Josey, is the production's most pleasant surprise. Jon Rua, late of Hamilton, provides his own brand of pep as Patchy the Pirate, who keeps breaking in until he and his piratical horde seize the stage in an Act II opening number that has nothing to do with anything.
Given a score written by enough pop stars to fill a weekend at Coachella -- in addition to Legend, they include Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, The Flaming Lips, and Lady Antebellum, among others -- the biggest hand of the evening goes to a classic tap number (admittedly, one written by They Might Be Giants), "I'm Not a Loser," performed by Gavin Lee as the crochety Squidward Q. Tentacles. Zinn has outfitted the actor with a second pair of legs, which he uses in some pretty sensational moves. (The choreography is by Christopher Gattelli.) The songs, each written in a different style, are pretty uniformly forgettable, with the exception of the opener, the bouncy, ebullient "Bikini Bottom Day," by Jonathan Coulton.
Zinn's scenery also includes a bandshell made of surfboards and his costumes include an appearance of umbrellas styled into jellyfish. Peter Nigrini's production design provides plenty of oceanic imagery, not to mention a series of news reports on Bikini Bottom's local television station. Kevin Adams' lighting has a pleasing palette of bold colors and movements keyed to the rhythms of the songs. Despite a series of costumes and hair designs (by Charles G. LaPointe) that must make mic placement a nightmare, Walter Trarbach's sound design is remarkably intelligible. Mike Dobson's Foley design adds a series of amusing sound effects right out of the television series.
All of this is orchestrated with a fair amount of bravado by Tina Landau, who keeps the songs and special effects coming. What she can't fix is the cipher-like lead character and a plot that is much too elementary for anyone past the fourth grade. For the special interest groups listed above, SpongeBob SquarePants will be a most delightful voyage to the bottom of the sea. Adults and the uninitiated may find themselves with a bad case of the bends. -- David Barbour