There’s a reason kids like gummy vitamins. They’re fun and sweet and colorful, with all their vital nutrients cleverly disguised. The SpongeBob SquarePants musical — which, yes, opened on Broadway last night — is loads more fun than mere chewy candy, and about a million times more colorful: hardly an inch of the Palace Theatre isn’t covered over by some vibrant, shiny thingamabob or another. (The genius psychedelic set and costumes are by David Zinn.)
But the wildly entertaining new musical also offers sage lessons in how to save civilization in the face of doom. So. Listen up, it seems SpongeBob’s got our playbook.
Fans of Stephen Hillenburg’s Nickelodeon franchise will be happy to see the gang’s all here, brilliantly sprung to life by visionary director Tina Landau. Along with book writer Kyle Jarrow, a host of pop-rock songwriters contributed their talents, including John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, The Flaming Lips, Panic! At the Disco, Sara Bareilles, David Bowie, and Brian Eno, to name just a few. It’s a buoyant and rollicking score that flows together remarkably well, thanks to music supervisor Tom Kitt.
For the uninitiated, we’re in Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob’s native habitat somewhere under the Pacific. He lives in a pineapple with a pet snail that meows like a cat; his best friends are a dim-witted starfish and a whip-smart Texan squirrel. (Just go with it, you’ve gotten this far!) But now doomsday is nigh: A volcano is set to erupt and wipe everything out.
As we know, the great war to come — for all of us — will be sponge…er, man versus nature. Here’s SpongeBob’s disaster playbook, courtesy of his new Broadway musical, so help us all.
Put faith in science. What may be hard to grasp for some is a cinch for Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper). May her unwavering belief that she can save the world by crunching numbers be an inspiration to #GirlsWhoCode everywhere.
Don’t be an asshole. Looking for someone to blame for the apocalypse, some residents turn on Sandy the squirrel because she’s the only land mammal (Cooper also happens to be Black, lending some resonance to this plot). Fear and ignorance are wack.
Value friendship over attention. The show’s great love story is between SpongeBob (Ethan Slater, in a breakthrough performance) and Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), who inadvertently attracts a following of sardines that think he’s their savior. Adoration goes to his head, but it’s only when he reconnects with his real friends that they stand a chance. So, yes, it pays to look up from your phone.
Put sentient beings before money. This is apparently very hard for some people! That includes SpongeBob’s boss at the burger joint, the greedy Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris). Fortunately he gets some sense knocked into him by his daughter, Pearl (Jai’Len Christine Li Josey, whose voice you will not soon forget).
Know your worth. This one gets driven home by Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles, whose eleven o’clock number, “I’m Not a Loser” by They Might Be Giants, stops the show. It’s a full tap extravaganza — on four legs! (Choreography is by Christopher Gattelli.)
Most importantly, don’t turn on your fellow…well, whatever they are. Sheldon Plankton (a wickedly funny Wesley Taylor) and his computer paramour (Stephanie Hsu) are the clear, and mostly ineffectual, villains here. But the real trouble comes when the citizens of Bikini Bottom turn on each other during the final countdown to annihilation.
That they’re able to bridge their differences, and SpongeBob and the gang get a happy ending — like, bubbles and confetti-cannon happy — may be where the real fantasy comes in. But you didn’t think anything like this could actually happen, did you?
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
(photos: joan marcus)