Since episode one, I’ve been a fan of the TV series SpongeBob SquarePants in all its wacky and subtly queer glory. Based on my laughter, hooting and hollering, and finger waving at the show on Broadway, apparently, I still squarely sit in the target demographic for director Tina Landau’s brilliantly conceived musical translation of this cultural zeitgeist’s adventures. With its soaring music, hilarious performances, tug-at-the-heartstrings story, and jaw-dropping design, SpongeBob SquarePants, the musical has quickly cemented itself as one of my favorite musicals I’ve ever seen.
The plot of the musical is extremely simple: Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob’s hometown, is in danger of falling victim to an exploding undersea volcano. He and his friends have to stop the volcano from erupting. They do. It’s a simple hero’s quest.
It is a two-and-a-half-hour episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, and newcomers should not fear such a thing. Despite a simple premise, the book of the musical by Kyle Jarrow, offers character development, a moral for adults and kids alike, and brings much pleasure (even amongst a little pathos). SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick accidentally becomes the leader of a cult, Texan squirrel Sandy Cheeks, a mammal living on the seafloor, is subject to anti-land mammal prejudice, and Squidward, a pessimistic, cranky octopus, just wants to be a star.
There is just enough plot to keep the audience interested as we are carried from one transcendent musical number to the next. The show also contains every single stupid SpongeBob reference a megafan could want, from the expected “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready” mantra SpongeBob repeats in times of need to more niche references to episodes like “Sailor Mouth” and “Idiot Box.” The broad humor of the show – and it is very broad and joyfully stupid, much like the cartoon – hits home.
A friend remarked to me that he felt this is the closest any audience of our time will come to experiencing the magic of a follies show in the 1920s or 1930s. Because of the way the score is assembled, the songs from a variety of different artists, each get to show off their follies number. Different pop artists contributed to the score, like T.I., Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, and Panic! At the Disco, and then music supervisor Tom Kitt unified the musical language of the show with his orchestrations and arrangements. No song feels out of place. The score builds with such a fervor with each colorful and jittery number that the crowd was whipped up like a rowdy church on Sunday in the midst of the first act.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography creates a completely unique physical language in which Bikini Bottom joyfully grooves and revels, particularly in the opening number, “Bikini Bottom Day,” which I watched through an ecstatic haze of tears because it explodes with happiness.
The ensemble is seamless, but as a stand-out among them, is Jai’len Christine Li Josey (making her Broadway debut), who plays misunderstood teen Pearl the Whale. With a voice that soars to the rafters and back, she gets to wail and wail and wail with a soul-shattering sound that could fill three Broadway houses. Danny Skinner and Lilli Cooper, as Patrick and Sandy respectively, provide warm and sweet supportive backup as the SpongeBob’s best friends. Though I wish Cooper had been given a better number to highlight her intense vocal range. Gavin Lee, as the dour Squidward shines as the lonely octopus with dreams of starring in his own show, and burns brighter than a supernova when he brings down the house after tapping on four feet during his big number, “I’m Not A Loser.” Wesley Taylor, as the mustache-twirling villain (if he had a mustache), Sheldon Plankton, milks every second onstage as the slickest, most evil, most diabolical baddie with the biggest Napoleon complex. With a ridiculous black ponytail and a shiny green suit, he’s like an oceanic Crispin Glover-esque reprobate causing havoc. In any other show he’d steal it entirely, but with this strong cast he has a lot of competition.
Ethan Slater makes his Broadway debut as SpongeBob. He is completely earnest, goofy, sexy, charismatic, and in line with his animated counterpart. His grasp on the physical comedy required for the role is astounding. His must be the first performance in Broadway history that requires full belting suspended upside down on a series of ladders hanging above the stage, and he doesn’t break a sweat. By the time his earth-shattering first act solo, “Simple Sponge,” comes around, if you’re not totally on-board with his performance, you’re either asleep or dead.
The magnitude of this performance is due in no small way to Tina Landau, credited as the musical production’s conceiver and director (read: auteur, read: complete badass). Landau’s understanding of Bikini Bottom and its inhabitants is whole and her use of space (the entire Palace Theatre) to tell this story is unreal. By conjuring the entire undersea town with trash that could be found at the bottom of the ocean (pool noodles as kelp, green and blue Solo cups as coral), she frees up the audiences’ imagination to accept that beach umbrellas are jellyfish and cardboard boxes comprise a massive volcano on the edge of town. This also gives her permission to not hide the mechanics of the theatre she’s created: fly wires are exposed, ensemble and crew members moving set pieces are lit, their hands exposed. We are fully taken care of in her loving hands. Landau’s imagination and vision are boundless. Her direction is openhearted, welcoming, relentlessly brilliant, and effervescently fucking hilarious.
Landau’s team includes David Zinn, who turns the Palace unrecognizable, by wholly encompassing the space and extending the design to the balcony and the back of the orchestra with tinsel and glitter streamers and mechanical monstrosities who have a purpose that becomes apparent as the show wends on. Zinn also designed the costumes that successfully point directly at the iconic cartoon outfits they seek to emulate while highlighting Zinn’s wholly original contribution to his collaboration with Landau. Kevin Adams’s concert lighting serves the story well by making certain numbers pop like at a stadium.
Major props must be given to sound designer Walter Trarbach and foley designer Mike Dobson (yes, there’s a live foley artist? Like what the hell? But also central to the show’s aesthetic). Trarbach’s design noticeably brought the entire audience into one unified soundscape, and Dobson’s foley provides every principal actor having a foot squeak designed to their character’s steps.
Unique to any new show I’ve seen on Broadway all year, in a way that aligns wholly with the Nickelodeon series, SpongeBob is a mainstream, family-friendly queer musical. While the television program never directly stated that Bob and his friends were queer, its aesthetic with its bright colors, surprise musical numbers, multiple appearances of SpongeBob and his cohorts in drag, SpongeBob the animated series was casually queer. The musical follows suit, with a leggy male ensemble member playing a drag Krabby Patty, references in choreography to the iconic voguing brought into the mainstream by the seminal queer documentary Paris is Burning, and its genderfuild costume design providing a casual queerness the likes of which I have never seen on Broadway. While Broadway has never been the poster child for this kind of progress, this show provides a beacon in the dark for other shows to follow suit along the same path.
I am deeply in love with this show because it is the rare show that delivers for everyone. It is a perfect distillation of my childhood in bringing back the hero of our youth in an innovative and new way. It is for my friends and their parents because the humor, music, and enveloping escapism of it are universal. It is for my sister who grew up in Bikini Bottom with me because it is about the family that supports you and stays with you. It is for anyone who wants to escape from the turmoil outside for a minute because the show offers an antidote of love, embrace, and togetherness. It is for people who have never seen an episode of SpongeBob. It is for anyone with a heart. And if you have a heart, and are alive, and want to experience joy, and to be reminded that sometimes “life smells weird” but sometimes things manage to work themselves out in the end, you should run to the Palace Theatre, take a deep breath, and jump into the deep end.