NEW YORK — Broadway is a boulevard of dreams, though sometimes it offers a surprise like the musical “SpongeBob Squarepants,” which recently landed at the Palace Theatre at Broadway and West 47th Street. For me, it turned out to be eye-opening, funny, delightful entertainment for all ages.
“SpongeBob Squarepants” is based on a successful television series dreamed up in 1999 by Stephen Hillenburg, a marine biologist turned animator who created the cartoon underwater city of Bikini Bottom, where Spongebob Squarepants and a variety of motley sea creature pals reside. The TV show became a huge hit with kids of the 21st century, and its merchandise business has brought in $13 million to the show’s producers, the Nickelodeon Group. The Palace lobby boasts a fulsome commodities shop of “SpongeBob Squarepants” paraphernalia.
SpongeBob has also been conjured into a couple of popular movies. Marketing seems to be its middle name. Yet the Broadway musical is exhilarating – especially for junior playgoers, who all seem to remember every minute aspect of the show, and it is slick enough to intrigue and entertain all but the most intractable senior folk.
The mastermind behind taking SpongeBob to Broadway is Tina Landau, who conceived and directed this incarnation. She is mostly known as an alumnus of avant garde theater in Chicago and New York. Here, Ms. Landau somehow channeled herself into the wacky underwater environment of Bikini Bottom, and gives it an amusing sense of reality. Her book writer, Kyle Jarrow, brings an accessible spirit to this fable.
Instead of commissioning an original score, Ms. Landau chose a shelfful of popular tunes from artists like John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Aerosmith and a slew of other recognizable names. Her orchestrator and musical arranger, Tom Kitt, found places where each song would fit into the SpongeBob tale, and he makes all of these divergent songs seem like a melodious, integrated Broadway score.
Landau’s scenic and costume designer, David Zinn, jazzes up the show with startling deep sea, otherworldly blues and greens of the watery land of Bikini Bottom. He fills it with touches of adventuresome, detailed undersea marine creatures and dresses the cast in a bright palate of Crayola costume colors that probably will galvanize your eyes.
The troupe Ms. Landau has chosen is full of originals, and all are uniquely talented. She even found the perfect guy to play SpongeBob – Ethan Slater, a redhead who creates a funny, touching, poignant character. His acting is protean enough to make what was once a sponge cartoon into a viable dancing and singing vulnerable human being. No, he is not garbed as a sponge; rather, in ordinary schoolboy togs — a short-sleeved yellow shirt, red tie, suspenders and plaid trousers.
At Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob works for Eugene Krab at the local Krusty Krab restaurant. We find out he has aspirations to be a manager, but Mr. Krab doesn’t think he measures up to the hierarchy of his restaurant. He’d rather have his whale daughter, Pearl Krab, take over. Eugene then sings a sad song to SpongeBob about his future always be '(Just A) Simple Sponge.”
Before SpongeBob can react to the downer prediction, a violent tremor shakes Bikini Bottom, the result of a threatening volcano. This might be the end of the community or the earth. His closest pals are Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) and a squirrel named Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper). I guess in a cartoon-like musical, a squirrel can survive underwater. This danger brings out the loyal, brave hero in SpongeBob. He and Sandy unite in conquering the volcano. But they have some other local resistance from the town’s villainous couple, Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) and his wife Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu). The lax Mayor (Gaelen Gilliland) and even his best friend forever, Patrick, temporarily betray him.
We learn that Sandy’s scientific adventures are the cause of the erupting volcano, but Sandy is a smart and resourceful squirrel and she quickly invents an “eruptor interrupter” that will save Bikini Bottom. Of course, they have to climb Mount Humongous to get to the volcano and throw Sandy’s device into it. With the help of the song and a lot of boxes and “Chop to the Top” by Lady Antebellum stop the volcano.
Ms. Landau keeps the show moving along with another Bikini Bottom resident, Mr. Squidward Q. Tenacious (Gavin Lee), a favorite citizen of the town, who taps with all four quad tentacles and gives us a dazzling dance to “Not a Loser” by They Might Be Giants, with a backup chorus of brightly red-clad dancing sea anemones. All of the evening’s inventive choreography is by Christopher Gattelli’s and his musical staging does wonders for the show.
After Bikini Bottom is saved, they celebrate with the “Best Day Ever” song and with a wing-ding finale for its hero SpongeBob. It’s a show that turns out to be family fun at its finest.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.