by Michael Bracken
He may not look like a sponge, but boy does Ethan Slater act like one. Like one sponge in particular, that is, for he’s the title character in SpongeBob SquarePants, the Broadway Musical, at the Palace Theatre. Attired in a deep yellow shirt, dark orange tie, and burnt orange plaid pants, orange haired Slater just looks like a kid who likes yellow-orange. But that kid carries an entire Broadway show with style and spirit.
Not that it’s a heavy load. Set in the underwater community of Bikini Bottom, the musical is as effervescent as its boyish leading man. Still, Slater must – and does -ensure the comic, user-friendly tone is set and maintained. Not quite as unknowing as his cartoon counterpart, SpongeBob is still innocent and wide-eyed, undaunted by obstacles and always believing the best.
The plot – is there a plot? Of course, there is, and it’s light as a feather, as well it should be. Mount Humongous is about to erupt and destroy Bikini Bottom. SpongeBob, with his friends Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) and Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) sets out to tame the volcano with a scientific device Sandy has built. Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) is the villain trying to stop them.
Patrick’s a starfish and Sandy a squirrel, but, like SpongeBob, they look like humans, and it doesn’t matter because they’re so invested in their roles. Patrick is a hulking guy, just as clueless onstage as on the small screen. Skinner’s movement and facial expressions capture his essence beautifully.
As a land mammal, Sandy is an outsider and subject to xenophobia when the going gets tough. That works itself out. Cooper is very likable but not as Texas or as Type A personality as I would have expected.
The trio has barely started its journey when Patrick gets sidetracked by an adoring school of sardines, who think he’s their savior. He leaves SpongeBob and Sandy to go on without him, until further notice.
Fans of the television show will be happy to know that Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee) is as uptight and crotchety as ever, except when he breaks out of his shell in a rousing fantasy production number called “I’m Not a Loser.” With his extra pair of legs and trademark clarinet, he lets us see his inner self as he taps and struts along with a chorus of sea anemones.
Director Tina Landau deftly pulls all the pieces together and delivers a package that works on all levels, breaking some of the rules along the way. The lack of creature-specific costumes in this type of enterprise is rare and welcome. One need only remember the wheelies in The Little Mermaid to feel grateful to costume designer David Zinn.
Zinn is also responsible for scenic design, which consists mostly of nautical memorabilia strewn about the stage; pre-show projections of large fish behind a scrim add to the mood along with side walls of the theater built with ramps where balls, large and small, roll round and down until they pop onto the stage.
Choreographer Christopher Gattelli orchestrates movement expertly, in both lively dance numbers and character-specific walks. Sexual identity is jumbled at times, with men and women made-up and dancing the same. But it’s done in a way that’s as ingenuous as SpongeBob himself.
Original music (music supervision by Tom Kitt) is classic show biz with more than a dash of good-time rock-n-roll. It comes from a wide variety of sources, including Panic! At the Disco and Sara Bareilles. It’s supplemented by a pair of pre-existing songs, including ‘No Control” by David Bowie and Brian Eno.
The dynamic “eleven o’clock number” is “(I Guess I) Miss You” by John Legend. It’s a beautiful ballad sung by two best friends, SpongeBob and Patrick, just before they reunite. Somehow Landau takes it right to the edge, bordering on the homoerotic but stopping just short of crossing the line between innocence and experience.
Credited with conceiving the musical production in addition to directing, and courtesy of Kyle Jarrow’s clever, efficient book, Landau has reeled in a whale of a good time.
Open-ended run at the Palace Theatre (1564 Broadway – Broadway at 47th Street). http://spongebobbroadway.com/ 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.