Goofy but cute? Check.
Nutty-and-fruity but timely in theme? Check.
Sappy but good-hearted? Check.
For kids and adults alike? Check.
Ignore the title and just go see it? Check.
For anyone like myself that somehow – in my case, even with six kids – never tuned in even once to Stephen Hillenburg’s award-winning, Nickelodeon hit, SpongeBob SquarePants, that final item on the above checklist is important. Swallow your pride and probable prejudice; and consider seriously checking out Broadway San Francisco’s current touring show, Kyle Jarrow’s The SpongeBob Musical. Gain some confidence in that the 2017 premiering Broadway musical received twelve Tony nominations and won both the 2018 Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk “Best Musical” awards; and know that among the show’s more than a dozen original song composers are the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, David Bowie, Jonathan Coulton, and yes, The Flaming Lips and Plain White T’s. And while I almost had to drag my husband to the opening night at the Golden Gate Theatre, even he was a convertee by the big rousing, full-voiced finale with bubbles floating through the air and paper streamers shooting at us from all directions.
The plot is certainly not the big draw of The SpongeBob Musical, since who among us could not predict that the impending, doomsday eruption of the volcano, Mount Humongous, will in fact not destroy SpongeBob’s undersea home, Bikini Bottom, and that the yellow fellow himself will probably be a hero in the end. There are the required villains, the skeptics, and the temporary betrayal that all spell doom for SpongeBob’s plan to save his home; but what makes this formulaic story actually have some importance for kids and adults alike are the aspects that look all too similar to our current environment.
The local government is power-hungry and not very responsive or creative. A scientific theory of how to thwart the impending, climatic disaster is ridiculed and ignored by all (except SB himself). That is especially true when the plan comes from an outsider, someone different in color and race whom locals start to rally against with “Go Home” signs (in this case, a squirrel among sea creatures). Religious fanatics look to a new, cult leader to save them while doing nothing to save themselves or others. Those in the business world rush to enact get-rich-quick schemes, even as the minutes to doom tick away, hoarding their money and forgetting the general good of their neighbors. And the one kid (SpongeBob, of course) with faith that the community can save itself finds himself the focus of bullying, being ignored, and being labeled as someone never going to make much of himself. Together, the underworld of Bikini Bottom sounds a lot like somewhere else we are all too familiar.
Lorenzo Pugliese is a SpongeBob SquarePants whose wide-eyed, child-like disposition is even sunnier than his bright yellow shirt with its red tie and suspenders. Singing with a voice that cannot help but at times remind one of Alvin and the Chipmunks, SpongeBob sings to his meowing pet snail, Gary (Dorian O’Brien), “I know I can do it for the world renowned, Bikini Bottom, gonna save this town” (“Bikini Bottom Day Reprise”). His seemingly unbounded optimism is barely thwarted by a miserly boss at the Krusty Krab Restaurant, a big-clawed Eugene Krabs (Zach Kononov), who pointedly tells him that he little sponge’s destiny is always to be a fry cook and never management.
Then there is his arrogant, ill-tempered, octopus neighbor, Squidward Q. Tentacles (Cody Cooley), who can only find time to snicker at SpongeBob in between his own dreams of hitting the big stage with his clarinet and his multi-legged, dancing abilities. A rival to Mr. Krabs – an oily-voiced, green-skinned Sheldon Plankton (Tristan McIntyre) and his equally diabolical computer-screen wife, Karen, (Caitlin Ort) – devise a plan to ensure anything SpongeBob tries to do to save the watery town will come crashing down – all because they want to hypnotize the town before everyone dies to like their unpopular Chum Bucket more than Krabs’ Krabby Patty burgers.
Against all these and more gilly neighbors out to stop him, SpongeBob seeks the help of two pals. First there is his best friend, Patrick Star (Beau Bradshaw), a pink starfish a little slow on the uptake but with a heart and smile as big as his oversized, beach-wear-clad body. Then there is the outsider everyone else wants to run out of the ocean and back on land, Sandy Cheeks (a powerfully and gloriously voiced Daria Pilar Redus). Sandy is an intelligent, dare-devil squirrel from Texas whose Southern drawl is long and slow but whose enthusiasm for adventure is charged and contagious (at least to SpongeBob). Sandy devises an Erupter Interrupter and convinces the Sponge to climb the fired-up Mount Humongous, hopefully to send the device to the volcano’s flaming depths and scientifically to cease its too-oft prone habit to shoot large boulders (in this case, bouncing orange balls of increasing size) toward Bikini Bottoms.
Their planned journey up the volcano’s red-hot heights has many hurdles to overcome, not the least being Sheldon and Karen’s plan to use an avalanche maker they found in the closet to send the two crusaders crashing back to the sea floor (and thus ensuring the two evil ones can gather all the doomed guppies, jellies, and crustaceans into one final, hypnotic grouping in order to award their awful-tasting Chum Bucket as best of Bikini Bottom grub).
To a person – or rather, to a gill-breather – each of these and many more of the stage-filling characters brings quirky mannerisms and movements and cartoon-worthy voices and expressions to their sea-life selves that are greatly enhanced by the homemade-looking but highly inventive and entertaining costumes of David Zinn. Much of the delight of the production comes from a look and feel that maybe a group of neighborhood kids and parents could have gotten together to create the psychedelically colored scenic elements, the wacky outfits, and the zany props that altogether, cannot help but fascinate and delight.
But time and again, it is the direction of Tina Laudau and the choreography of Christopher Gattelli that give this talented, overall young cast the wherewithal to exploit the innocent humor and sense of adventure that all of once had as kids. Just to watch SpongeBob and Sandy Cheeks scale the treacherous mountain is worth the price of the ticket. Its rocky edges are first portrayed in Peter Nigrini’s massive projections as red-hot boxes. On the stage below, three large carts stacked to shaky heights with boxes of all sizes become the uneven, shaking surfaces that the two-heroes-in-the-making must scale. Black-cloaked stagehands ensure the carts of boxes are always on the move in a dance that sends our two heroes crawling, falling, barely hanging on, and sometimes disappearing over, among, and into boxes marked “Fragile.” Even more fascinating is when the two reach the peaks of the volcano; and both projections and the stage stacks turn into wooden ladders positioned in every precarious position possible, just daring the two to climb, go through rungs, and hang on for dear life as ladders rise and fall among them.
If that is not enough to entice anyone on the fence, consider a line-up of pink-fluff-headed sea creatures in hot-pink, glittering long-tail coats recreating a line-up of tap-dancers from a 1930’s Follies musical. Even better, imagine they are all centering around Cody Cooley’s Squidward with his four, dangly legs hilariously tripping the light fantastic as the octopus finally gets his dream – and it is just a dream – of his big-stage debut as a singing/dancing star.
And if there is one more reason to dare to head to the Golden Gate (it’s OK by the way not to tell your neighbors or fellow workers that you are going to see SpongeBob), then another side-tickler is seeing a school of green-dressed, pink-capped sardines float across the stage in perfectly coordinated fashion involving many complicated hand movements. The dozen or so fishes are members of an evangelical cult looking for their savior; and who else should they find and select but SpongeBob’s BFF, Patrick Star. The resulting scenes of savior-worship and the new savior eating it up are hilarious and of course, full of currently targeted messages.
Is The SpongeBob Musical one of the latest entries into the Great Musical Songbook to be revered for generations to come. Nah. The songs are cute; they cover a wide range of styles; but for all the famous people who write them, most are quickly forgotten. The storyline is highly predictable, and much of the humor is quite silly and mindless. But mixed amongst all the trivial are serious and important messages that have current relevance, with points made about loyalty of friendship, about being an upstander rather than a bystander, and about fighting the troubling and prevailing shifts in our society to ostracize “the other.” All in all, The SpongeBob Musical is a fun and worthwhile evening of live, musical theatre for the entire family – even if there are no kids in the family!
Rating: 4 E
The SpongeBob Musical continues its short run through February 16, 2020 at Broadway San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.broadwaysf.com/.
Photos Credit: Jeremy Daniel