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11, Dec 2017

Spongebob Squarepants, the joy we need

by Corey Cohen
for The Cultural Critic

Spongebob Squarepants, The Broadway Musical. Palace Theatre, New York.
 

In a time & place as bleak as America 2017, we could all use the unbridled optimism of Spongebob. Adapted from the hit TV show of the 1990s, Spongebob Squarepants The Broadway Musical is now at the Palace Theatre and full of fun.

This is a Broadway show for the whole family, though it’ll work particularly well if you’re familiar with the Nickelodean show, as I had having grown up during the first years of Spongebob. (Some famous quotes from the early days of the TV show have made it onto Broadway and land incredibly well.)

In adapting the fantastical world of Bikini Bottom, director Tina Landau wisely avoided the route of using theme park costumes and instead chose to capture the spirit of the setting. She’s assisted by scenic and costume designer David Zinn, who brings the world to life with creative sets.

The real superstar of Spongebob Squarepants, the person who makes it all work, is the yellow sponge himself; well, the actor playing him. Newcomer Ethan Slater is a one-man rocket of energy and positivity, you can’t help but love him the second he opens his mouth at the top of the show. Slater’s portrayal of the titular character is infectious, his joy radiates throughout the theater. I truly can’t imagine another actor so perfectly suited to bring Spongebob to life.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Lilli Cooper as Sandy the squirrel is like an underwater Wonder Woman, using science to solve dilemmas while people discount her for being a land mammal (the show does have some down-to-Earth themes) while Danny Skinner as Patrick the starfish captures the simplicity of the character though I was disappointed to not hear the signature deep Patrick voice deliver some of his memorable lines. Gavin Lee as Squidward has a showstopping tap dance on four legs, Brian Ray Norris as Mr. Krabs perfectly captured the well-known voice, Jai’len Christine Li Josey as Pearl has a sensational belting voice, and Wesley Taylor as the villain Plankton steals the show with his hip-hop solo.

The music uses quite a different formula, having famous singers from various genres write one song each. It makes sense, because the characters are so individualistic, and it’s more cohesive than you might imagine, thanks to music supervisor and orchestrator Tom Kitt and co-composer Jonathan Coulton who bookends the show with the delightful anthem “Bikini Bottom Day.” The score is mostly successful; for any song that’s a dud (“No Control” by the late David Bowie or “I’m Not a Loser” by They Might Be Giants), there are multiple hits. “Hero Is My Middle Name” by Cyndi Lauper, “When the Going Gets Tough” by TI, “BFF” by the Plain White T’s, and “Just a Simple Sponge” by Panic At The Disco are the highlights.

Spongebob Squarepants is not a groundbreaking piece of theater and some parts of the plot seem unnecessary. But Tina Landau, Ethan Slater and the whole company have definitely captured the essence of Spongebob, including all the silliness that comes with it. With everything happening in our country these days, the optimistic Spongebob may be the hero we need. If you want two and a half hours of pure unadulterated childlike joy, Spongebob Squarepants The Broadway Musical will be a treat for you.