The last 40 minutes or so of Spongebob Squarepants is such mind-rattling, eye-popping, rib-tickling fun that maybe I should just stop right there. Not that this ramshackle contraption drawn from Nickelodeon’s sensationally popular series, about the finicky denizens of Bikini Bottom, is ever short on energy, visual spectacle, inside-Bikinisms and the like.
Indeed, the show works so hard to amuse us with irreverent kickiness that by the time we return from intermission, the stupor induced by the Act I assault on the senses may have been enhanced by alcohol to put you in a fog. So my advice: Stay away from the bar. For, first-act problems aside, this show, ingeniously staged by Tina Landau and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli within an inch of its CO2 life, has more to offer than we had any right to expect in this era of dreary Broadway knockoffs of Hollywood dross. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, eat your heart out.
I came to the show, which opened tonight at the Palace Theatre, a Spongebob Squarepants virgin, knowing nothing of Stephen Hillenburg’s long-running cartoon – sorry, animated – series. The only visual connection I had was that the title character, with his checkerboard meets op-art wardrobe, reminded me of the Mackenzie Childs catalog hawking hyper twee ceramics at bone china prices.
Here, Spongebob is played by Ethan Slater, a compact singer-dancer of apparently limitless energy – I don’t think he’s ever off-stage – and a voice I hope has been reversibly cultivated into its state of gratingly chipper annoyance. His pals are Patrick (Danny Skinner), who is thick of girth and vacant of intellect, and Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) who is one smart Girl Scout cookie.
The underwater Atlantis of Bikini Bottom is threatened with extinction by the volcano atop Humongous Mountain. This leads to panic among the citizenry abetted by an incompetent, CYA-prone mayor (Gaelen Gilliland) and a nefarious businessman (Brian Ray Norris), among others. A side plot involves would-be rock star Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee). Lovable as the others are, it’s SQT you want to keep your eyes on.
Which will be a challenge, because David Zinn, a master designer, seems to have been fed an herb meal before devising the set and costumes that transform the noble old Palace into a trippy mindf!ck that’s equal parts Rube Goldberg and Electric Circus. I doubt there are any colors on view that exist in nature, or that you or I have seen since black light met ingested pholiotina cyanopus. It would be unfair to leave lighting designer Kevin Adams out of the credits here, as well as the projections created by Peter Nigrini and the stadium-style sound by Walter Trarbach. Nickelodeon and its partners, The Araca Group Sony Music Masterworks and Kelp On The Road, have spared no kelp.
Perhaps they saved on the score, which drafts songs from the show written by Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, They Might be Giants, T.I. and others. On opening night, many creatives big shots of all the producing partners involved were there with their tykes, and much roaring was heard each time a familiar character or song was introduced.
It’s all silly and a little mind-numbing. There are way too many side-plots and numbers that don’t quite stick, and at two-and-a-half hours, the show will try the patience of customers young and old.
Until, that is, Gavin Lee and a chorus of Sea Anemones get to “I’m Not A Loser,” by They Might Be Giants. It’s as clever a lyric as any by a knowing Broadway songsmith. More important, Gattelli uses it to make a career statement: The exuberant number hat-tips Broadway’s legendary director-choreographers, from Tommy Tune to Michael Bennett, Gower Champion to Michael Kidd and even Busby Berkeley. It’s profligate with stylistic touchstones, superbly danced.
And central to it is Lee, who leads the exhilarating fuschia-decked chorus in contrasting celadon glittery top hat and tails, with all four feet. That’s right, the dude is a squid and has to tap with an extra set of dogs nipping at his heels. Top that, I dare you.