SpongeBob SquarePants review

SpongeBob SquarePants Review - Broadway musical

For what it’s worth — and we’re talking millions of dollars here — you are never going to see as convincing an impersonation of a two-dimensional cartoon by a three-dimensional human as that provided by Ethan Slater at the Palace Theater. Mr. Slater plays the title role in “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,” the ginormous giggle of a show that opened on Monday night.

This may sound like dubious praise. But think about it. How many of those legions of figures who gambol through stage adaptations of animated movies — teapots, lions, fake Russian princesses, ad infinitum — seem to have been transliterated from the screen without any dilution of their inked-in essence?

The 24-year-old Mr. Slater, making his Broadway debut in Tina Landau’s exhaustingly imaginative production, achieves this metamorphosis sans prosthetics, skin dye or a facsimile costume. (He wears suspendered plaid trousers, with a shirt and tie.) And he’s playing a sea creature from a television children’s show, for God’s sake, one that appears to be a bright yellow, rectangular kitchen sponge.

But though he is neither square-shaped nor visibly jaundiced, I, for one, never doubted that Mr. Slater is SpongeBob to the tips of whatever the underwater phyla equivalents of fingers are. Try that on for size, Mr. Christian Bale, and all you other body-morphing Method boys.

Mr. Slater, I should hasten to add, shares the stage with a peer in capturing exactly the innocently idiotic spirit of the Nickelodeon television series — and $13 billion retail merchandising empire — that inspired this lavish production. By whom I mean the designer David Zinn, whose sets and costumes raise the bar for trippy visuals in mainstream theater.

Like that of the original television show, created by Stephen Hillenburg and first aired in 1999, Mr. Zinn’s aesthetic combines the literal-mindedness and repetitively riffing wildness of a toddler’s fantasy life. Exhibit A is the punning physical form of the animated SpongeBob himself, which is that of a familiar household object, not a specimen of aquatic zoology.

Similarly, in recreating the series’ submarine town of Bikini Bottom, Mr. Zinn shows the wonders that can be worked on everyday rec-room items by hyper-magnification and coats of psychedelic color. Giant plastic party cups and pool noodles are combined in immense clusters to evoke underwater flora and fauna, with matching costumes that might have been assembled from Salvation Army bins.

The effect is of a D.I.Y. playpen-aquarium as it might have been conceived by an industrious five-year-old. Or a five-year-old with an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail and a budget of the reported $20 million invested in this production.

Overseeing this grandly infantile universe is Ms. Landau, who made her name as a boundary-testing director of the avant-garde. She turns out to have been just the person for the job, never betraying the tone of instructive anarchy — packaging life lessons in Looney Tune-style adventure yarns — that has always been the hallmark of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

In other words, you will probably adore this musical if: a) “SpongeBob” was a formative influence of your childhood; b) you are a stoner who tokes up to watch reruns of the show on YouTube (categories a and b are not mutually exclusive); or c) if you are (like my date for this show) a parent of “SpongeBob”-bingeing progeny and found its sensibility crept into, and wallpapered, your weary mind.

If you are none of the above, you will find your patience sorely tested. But if you are obliged to accompany one of the “Sponge”-happy types listed above, might I suggest you do what I did?

That would be to immerse yourself in random (preferably early) episodes of the series, and then marvel at how the creative team here replicates their seemingly inimitable tone and substance. (Or you could indulge in some illegal inhalation, although I didn’t say that.)

Still, you may indeed enjoy such improbable spectacles as a misanthropic squid named Squidward (Gavin Lee, wearing four-legged pants) doing a virtuosic four-footed tap dance with a Busby Berkeley kick line of pink-sequined sea anemones. Or a heavy-metal boy band made up of sea skates on skateboards, with music by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.

Oh, I forget to tell you. The show’s songs (supervised, arranged and orchestrated by the composer Tom Kitt) have been written by a plethora of pop-rock eminences, including John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum and They Might Be Giants.

But a lot of these numbers register as polyphonically enhanced variations on the kinds of instructional ditties once heard on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” starting with the opener, “Bikini Bottom Day” (by Jonathan Coulton, known for his songs for the “Portal” games). There’s even one called (shoot me now) “BFF” (by the Plain White T’s), performed by SpongeBob and his bestie, the indolent starfish Patrick Star (a very good Danny Skinner).

As for Kyle Jarrow’s script, it also honors its bright yellow template. SpongeBob, a relentlessly cheery fast-food worker with self-esteem issues, learns that his beloved Bikini Bottom is in danger of being destroyed by a volcano.

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So he, Patrick and the brilliant scientist Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper, in an astutely underplayed performance), a squirrel (don’t ask), must come up with a plan to save their world. And this in the face of all sorts of topical horrors, since even children have their apocalyptic fears these days.

The musical number “Hero Is My Middle Name” features these three friends: Danny Skinner (left) as Patrick Star, Mr. Slater as SpongeBob SquarePants and Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Among the obstacles on the path to hero-hood: xenophobic prejudice (Lilli is disdained as a mammal), the bureaucratic paralysis of the mayor (Gaelen Gilliland), panic-rousing media coverage (Kelvin Moon Loh is fabulous as a glam-rock newscaster) and the villainous obstructions of the evil Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor, who isn’t scary, presumably by design) and his wife, Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu).

Did your brain just freeze? If you’re a “SpongeBob” virgin you will only short-circuit if you try to make scientific sense of this water wonderland. Instead, tune out until the next amazing set piece, and then gape at the ingenious reconfigurations of objects like packing crates and parasols.

Christopher Gattelli’s choreography of his sexually ambiguous ensemble (genders blur when wet) is perversely brilliant, suggesting piscine movement through breakdance and vogueing gestures instead of the expected swimming motions. But no one matches Mr. Slater in conveying the physicality of the life aquatic.

An uncannily bendy-bodied figure, he is so springy and supple that you’re not surprised when one of his arms suddenly stretches across the stage. Possessed of a squeaky-clean belter’s voice, he is steeped in a sunny (or sunshine-yellow) chipperness that can absorb all gloom and doubts.

Whether he likes it or not, Mr. Slater seems destined to be identified forever with what is surely a once-in-a-lifetime match of actor and character. He might want to consult with Joel Grey (eternally remembered as the M.C. in “Cabaret”) or Carol Channing (the same with “Hello, Dolly!”) about dealing with the attendant blessings and burdens.
Last Update:February, 28th 2019

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