Most fans will agree that the Spongebob Squarepants franchise has been pretty terrible ever since 2004. After several awful TV episodes and two disappointing feature films, the series has yet to return to the classic brilliance of its first three seasons.
When it was first announced that a Spongebob Squarepants musical was in the works, I was skeptical (and jealous for not having been hired as dramaturg…but, like, whatever). But after seeing the show in previews with some friends, I can happily say that it was a masterful spectacle that reestablished my faith in life, theatre, and the franchise.
I’ll start by saying that the true highlight of the show is the stagecraft and costumes. It’s clear this show was created by artists who are not only brilliant at their craft but also respectful of the Spongebob Squarepants canon. The detail and care put into all the show’s physical aspects made it a genuine homage to the cartoon as opposed to a lazy commercial venture. From the moment you walk into the Palace Theatre, you are immediately submerged into the nautically nonsensical world of Bikini Bottom: blue streamers line the walls, fish are projected onto the skrim, lights cast water reflections on the ceiling, various contraptions made of flotsam and jetsam line the proscenium, and a pre-show of Hawaiian music (featuring ukulele and kazoo) completes the aquatic ambiance.
If the stagecraft doesn’t win you over then, it certainly does by the end of the evening. Throughout the show, the intricate set pieces (while frequently campy but never tasteless) are operated by the performers in such a way that you see how the “magic” works, and then your imagination fills in the rest of the details. To describe specifics would be to spoil some truly delightful moments in the show, but let it suffice to say that this show does what I love most about theatre: it presents art imitating life (or at least a caricature of life). Similarly, the delightful costumes perfectly capture the personalities and body types of the sea critter ensemble. Whether it’s Spongebob in a yellow dress shirt with suspenders, Mrs. Puff in a bloated blue coat and hat, or Plankton in a Dr. Evil-esque suit with a pony-tail and eye patch, the costumes remain anthropomorphic and never approach hokey. Even Plankton’s wife, Karen, who wears a dashing sci-fi suit reminiscent of something out of The Rocky Horror Show, is believable as a computer even after the initial computer monitor prop is abandoned early on in the show. All these production elements ensure a faithful translation from animated cartoon to real-life-theatre that even Disney will have trouble topping. And best of all, the audience gets such a thrill out of seeing how each character and setting is portrayed onstage. We keep asking ourselves, “Now how are they going to do THAT?”
You may be saying to yourself, “That’s all well and good, but a show that’s all spectacle can’t be all that good.” And you’re right. But while the Spongebob Squarepants musical is mostly spectacle, its story and structure are decent enough. The plot is basically this: a volcano is going to erupt and destroy Bikini Bottom, and Spongebob et al must prevent it from doing so while Plankton et al try to capitalize on the crisis. Straightforward enough. But by the end of Act One, you get the feeling that an eleven minute TV episode has been stretched into a two hour musical. The upside to this is that, because of the way the show is structured, it is more character-driven than plot-driven; and whether they know it or not, the audience enjoys this because it means that we are able to spend a lot of time with all the zany characters we love from the television series. For example, a duet between Mr. Krabbs and Pearl is unnecessary, but the audience loves to see these often overlooked characters have a funny (and in a way, touching) moment together. Similarly, the show’s structure allows it to incorporate several tropes that the television series is so famous for. From title cards saying “50 years later,” to the French narrator, to even the pathetic Patchy the Pirate with his meta comedy schtick, the musical utilizes several inside jokes that only the true geeks will get; but the result never alienates less seasoned fans or newbies.
A topic of much discussion, the score consists of songs written by several different artists ranging from the Plain White T’s to David Bowie. Most people worried comprising a score of so many different styles would make the show feel inconsistent; but thanks to Tom Kitt’s musical supervision and gnarly band arrangements, the score feels streamlined while still having that element of musical eclecticism that the TV show is known for. (Think “Sweet Victory,” “The Campfire Song Song,” and “Gary’s Song”). The only downside is that most of these songs are pop songs that you can rock out to instead of Sondheim-esque songs that propel the plot forward. At the end of the day, it is Jonathan Coulton’s songs that help build a musical framework on which the others may hang.
(Bikini) Bottom line? This show is worth seeing whether you’re a die hard Spongebob fan or just an enthusiastic theatre-goer. It’s crazy, silly fun…and just like the TV series, it’s pure escapism. Don’t go in expecting the cerebral profundity of Sunday in the Park with George. You wouldn’t expect that from a Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse cartoon, so you shouldn’t expect it from a SpongeBob musical either. After all, Spongebob Squarepants has never aspired to be more than escapist, nonsensical fun; but every now and then, an episode would strike a chord with people because of its sincerity. In much the same way, so does the musical.
Now it’s time to “BRING IT A-ROUND TOWN!”