Nickelodeon’s endearing, absorbent, animated oddball optimist SpongeBob SquarePants and his surreal undersea habitat Bikini Bottom get a Broadway-scaled stage treatment in “The SpongeBob Musical,” an inventive, diverting, decidedly promising musical trying out in Chicago. Director Tina Landau and a crack design team privilege simple theatrical imagination over literal interpretations of the cartoon universe, and the creativity works, as do many of the original songs contributed by a diverse array of artists ranging from the alternative (e.g. The Flaming Lips, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) to the classic (David Bowie, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith). Plenty energetic and likeable, the show currently skews quite young, and could benefit from an small injection of authentic edginess. While gentle wit abounds, a touch of darkness would serve it well.
Newcomer Ethan Slater anchors a terrifically talented cast as the inveterately enthusiastic invertebrate. Designer David Zinn’s costume for the character signals the simplicity of the approach: yellow sweater vest, red tie, and plaid shorts amply capture his spongey squareness, while a visible Foley artist provides the sounds of squish when he walks. His sidekick starfish Patrick (Danny Skinner) dresses in pastels and tropical shirts, signaling his laid-back happy-go-lucky sensibility. And their tentacled, curmudgeonly neighbor Squidward (Gavin Lee, expertly channeling Paul Lynde) wears ingenious slacks that come with a set of extra legs, attached at the heels, that move in conversation with the Lee’s steps.
Zinn’s set extends out into the house and up into the side balconies, resembling a handcrafted playground of recycled detritus — ladders, a bicycle, etc. When it comes time to take the characters to a volcanic mountain that threatens to destroy Bikini Bottom, we are met by nothing more than a collection of cleverly compiled boxes.
A polished and occasionally inspired book by Kyle Jarrow (“A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant”) sets up a series of side stories to the main plotline, in which SpongeBob and his Texas squirrel friend Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) work to limit the volcanic eruption “with science.” Meanwhile, the rest of the town explores less productive possibilities, the best of which involves holding a fundraiser to enable the purchase of an escape pod. The silly sardines embrace Patrick as a wise savior — which leads him to part ways with SpongeBob — while others try to place blame or take advantage of the situation.
The show is always most alive when the songs arrive. The opening “Bikini Bottom Day” introduces us successfully to the world, while the SpongeBob/Patrick friendship finds great, goofy expression in “BFF” from the Plain White T’s. Panic! At the Disco contributes the likeable “(Just A) Simple Sponge,” in which SpongeBob claims to be something far more — although the Mummenschanz-ish dance number for this is the one time Christopher Gattelli’s otherwise strong choreography comes off hokey.
A couple of songs and characters fall flat, including the villainous Plankton (Nick Blaemire) and his hip-hop number. Mr. Krabs’s (Carlos Lopez) duet with his daughter Pearl (Emmy Raver-Lampman), “Daddy Knows Best,” finds no humor or wit or even edge in Mr. Krabs’ obsession with money, nor in the nonsensical element that his daughter is a whale (which those who don’t already know won’t figure out). Later, what should be a climactic number as SpongeBob and Sandy climb the mountain, Lady Antebellum’s “Chop to the Top,” comes off way too plain.
The unquestionable highlight belongs to Lee’s Squidward, who absolutely steals the show in Act II with a tap extravaganza to the terrific and very stageworthy “I’m Not a Loser” from They Might Be Giants. It’s a dose of true Broadway pizzazz, and expresses the character’s inner self with sensitivity and flair. The number provides enough momentum to take us through to the late “Best Day Ever,” which captures SpongeBob’s ultimate philosophical take on life. Even if the world is ending, why not have a great time anyway?
But we could use a bit more of Squidward’s sensibility, that life is full of suffering and despair, to counterbalance and ultimately show off SpongeBob’s optimism. Jarrow’s book possesses the right elements for it — denial, greed, scapegoating, stubborn ignorance in the face of environmental disaster — but Landau treats it all with perhaps too much of a gentle hand, never giving voice or vision to the darker underbelly of the sea and its creatures. The show seems a bit afraid of depicting genuine fear, and at this stage misses the fact that the world of the series is not bounded by SpongeBob’s innocence.
The commercial calculation is challenging. Clearly, the core audience is young tykes and the parents who tag along for safekeeping. If that’s the sole ambition, then the show needs only minimal adjustment. But if there’s a desire to entertain the adults more deeply, make it potentially palatable to young teens, and generate the level of buzz that could counteract a certain sense of cynicism that this type of endeavor inevitably attracts, then this very solid and artistically admirable foundation needs a slight shift in worldview.