Children should feel free to take their parents to Tina Landau’s psychedelically inspired version of the whimsical kiddie cartoon show that’s been making a fortune for Nickelodeon since 1999. Kyle Jarrow’s book retains the two key elements of the Nicktoon: the cheerful sea sponge’s unquenchable optimism and his selflessly heroic efforts to rescue his friends from whatever problems happen to pop up. But Landau’s hallucinogenic stagecraft transcends the show’s television origins by speaking a visual language that’s three-dimensional and boldly theatrical.
The piscine characters are played by actors wearing flashy, but not overbearing costumes designed by David Zinn, who also created the insanely animated scenery. Goofy Patrick Star (as in starfish) is played by good-natured Danny Skinner in goofy mismatched beachwear. That bossy Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee, ever so pushy) needs only a spare pair of legs to convince us he’s an octopus. And by putting on red boxing gloves, Brian Ray Norris instantly becomes crabby Eugene Krabs.
As for our hero, Ethan Slater’s playfully animated SpongeBob suits up like a loose-limbed high-school sophomore who just happens to have outstanding musical theater chops.
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The fluorescent color scheme is so dazzling and the visual effects so clever, it’s easy to overlook the simplicity of the basic design. Stacks of lime-green pool noodles make a perfectly fine approximation of sea kelp. And a graceful underwater ballet of hot-pink jellyfish is constructed out of nothing more than plastic umbrellas. The only downside is when we realize that the found objects used so ingeniously in this multi-million-dollar show represent the cast-off junk tossed into the ocean by thoughtless humans.
None of that figures in the two-tiered plot. On one level, we have the long-standing rivalry between the Krusty Krab (“Bikini Bottom’s most popular dining establishment”) and the Chum Bucket, the low-class joint owned and operated by the villainous Sheldon Plankton. As in marine biology, the plankton appears on the television show as a single-cell organism. Here, Sheldon is played to perfection by the lean and skulking Wesley Taylor.
(“I may be small, but my genius is immense.”)
SpongeBob is so good-natured, he can’t help himself from greeting the world with manic joy. (“Hello lawn! Hello street! Hello sky! Hello flowers!”) But he can’t ignore the serious threat to the very existence of Bikini Bottom — an undersea volcano called Mount Humongous that’s threatening to blow sky-high. That’s actually a lot scarier than any of the problems that arise in the TV show, but this is Broadway, where things tend to get inflated.
Here, that inflation surfaces in the score. Instead of working with a simpatico composer and lyricist, Landau, in the adventurous spirit of a Steppenwolf director, has stacked the show with individual pop songs written by individual songwriters, including Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. It’s not as much of a gimmick as it seems, but without a signature sound, there’s no signature style. What there is, though, is plenty of giddy, goofy fun for all.