You don’t have to be a veteran viewer of the animated television series by Stephen Hillenburg on which this new musical is based. I’m not and I found the show a visual blast, This is an astonishing looking scenic achievement. Before I even get to the hard-working cast, I want to salute set and costume designer David Zinn, lighting designer Kevin Adams, production designer Peter Nigrini, sound designer Walter Trarbach and everyone else who put together this dazzling spectacle under the direction of Tina Landau, who conceived the musical production.
On entering the Palace Theatre, where one might expect this show to be ensconced for a long time, one sees musicians playing informally near a side of the stage. The scenery in view is already spectacular, extending out onto both walls with elaborate colorful constructions for later use. A huge collection of balloons cover the top of the stage. Other atmospheric touches are too many to mention.
Soon Jon Rua as the noisy Patchy the Pirate comes on stage to amusingly harangue the audience, and security guards (really actors) hustle him off the stage. He will return. We are then plunged into the world of Bikini Bottom, inhabited by creatures of the sea, those with whom followers of the animation will be familiar. But that’s not necessary. They all standout in their own right as an amusing lot, soon worried about by a volcanic eruption threatening to wipe them out. That’s the main plot thrust in the book by Kyle Jarrow.
Of course, the focus is on SpongeBob SquarePants, delightfully portrayed by the likable, dexterous Ethan Slater, who with his physical agility can dominate the stage as well as set out on a treacherous climb to stop the pending volcanic disaster. Danny Skinner affably plays his robust friend, Patrick Star. The undersea world of SpongeBob teems with cartoon creatures, here brought to life by a superb cast put through entertaining confrontations and elaborate musical numbers. Yes, the book sags now and then but there is always an arresting sight of a new scenic wonder or lighting coup.
One of my favorites among the creatures is Squidward Q. Tentacles, played by Gavin Lee wearing four-legged pants. Whether he walks or tap dances, the effect is uproariously funny, especially when he does a dance routine in front of chorines of the sea who look as if they are would-be Rockettes. (A great job in the show is done by choreographer Christopher Gattelli.) Other characters include Lilli Cooper in the major role of Sandy Cheeks and Brian Ray Norris as Eugene Krabs, wearing huge crab-like mitts. There are many more populating Bikini Bottom, all appropriately costumed and used to advantage, and some occasionally moving through the aisles and interacting with spectators.
As for the score, it consists of original songs written by an army of noted stars in the music world, as well as songs by David Bowie & Brian Eno, and Tom Kenny & Andy Paley, with additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton and additional music by Tom Kitt, who is also credited with music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements.
Seeing “SpongeBob SquarePants” is a memorable example of the elaborate staging possible in the theater, and anyone interested at that aspect of showbiz should be sure to see it, with or without an enthusiastic child in tow. At the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed December 8, 2017.