With inaugural TodayTix Presents Concert, Ethan Slater Proves He’s Not “Just a Simple Sponge”
by Matt Smith
No matter how much you may have raved about his celebrated performance in SpongeBob SquarePants, which, last season, took Broadway by storm, surprising amateur theatergoers and professional critics alike, know that Ethan Slater aims to make sure one element is particularly clear: he is so much more than just a simple sponge.
Sure, he may have burst onto the scene as that familiar absorbent yellow sea critter who “lives in a pineapple under the sea,” but from the first note he strums from his acoustic guitar, it’s clear that, with this live mini-concert — both his first, and the inaugural one presented by budding discount ticket app TodayTix, as part of their hot new breakout concert series, TodayTix Presents — he’s aiming to break free of his undersea counterpart and give audiences a taste of who he is beyond the depths of Bikini Bottom.
To start, he’s traded his zesty tropical abode for the “hip-happening” sleek-and-chic Living Room lounge at the W New York Hotel in Times Square. The room is tinged with an adult-contemporary vibe, with audience members dispersed on chaise benches, as waitstaff hand-deliver martinis from a lively bar in back.
Second, there’s the set list. Armed with his cohorts from both the Main Stem and Chicago incarnations of the Nickelodeon musical, Slater delves into an eclectic mix of pop songs that helped shape his life and career, while testing out selections from Edge of the World, his own in-progress original musical, an intimate story which chronicles a boy raised in rural isolated Alaska and his ability to use imagination to cope with loneliness in order to see himself as valuable.
The songs themselves are quite enjoyable; Slater’s score is infused with a unique twang reminiscent of Mumford and Sons, unheard of in most modern musicals today, and the pop covers do much to communicate his musical influences and what’s of value to him within their lyrics.
And though, yes, the evening relies heavily on the self-created catalogue of Edge (all of which are presented as first drafts and out-of-context, to boot!), explicitly detailed introductions ensure the basis of the show’s throughline remained clear and intact, while, again, poignant, thoughtfully-chosen lyrics — such as “Adventures starts where borders end,” “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way,” and “When we search for something timeless….we find, even from the ancient truths, we might mine something new” — resonate far beyond the scope of the show.
Though his friends don’t mind taking a backseat to the headliner, cozying up on similar chaises to imbibe while Slater serenades and shows off his impressive musical skill, when they are (brilliantly) utilized, they add a richer, more complete sound to both the numbers that need them and the musical as a whole, in turn allowing themselves to showcase their own impeccable vocal prowess through the vehicle of Slater’s music and lyrics.
Of particular note is “absolute badass” Lilli Cooper, who lends her strong and sassy pipes to Edge of the World’s protagonist’s “I Want” song; the musical’s co-writer Nick Blaemire duets on a few tunes as well, both from Edges and not, while SpongeBob sound designer and foley artist extraordinaire Mike Dobson provides additional instrumentals and commentary between numbers.
And then, there’s the man himself. Taking full advantage of a skill that wasn’t quite as on display throughout his SpongeBob days, he demonstrates his abilities as a multi-faceted man of music, effortlessly gliding from keys to acoustic to electric guitar in rapid succession, all while providing vocals for the entire set list — half of which are, again, songs he wrote himself.
To boot, he lets loose and doesn’t shy away from “keeping it real,” acknowledging his nerves and taking no shame in noting he’s “new at this”… and it’s remarkably refreshing as a result. His naiveté keeps the mood light and bouncy; in between songs, he advises us on tuning our instrument, shares what he loves (and loathes) about living in New York, indulges in a few cheesy musical theatre jokes and even previews his upcoming turn in Fosse/Verdon.
Still, with the crowd teeming with SpongeBob fans, all championing his Tony-nominated performance, he can’t help but appease with a homage to the musical that made him a household name, putting his acoustic spin on the porous character’s main anthem — which, he explains, perfectly parallels the feelings he had throughout his own personal, six-year journey with the show.
But above all, with the evening, Slater, not unlike the hero within his repeatedly-mentioned Broadway star turn, revels in collaboration and friendship, and, as evidenced by the “kick-a**” set list and unbeatable rapport between the performers, the magic that can ignite when one combines the two.
As he, in his SpongeBob anthem, requests, “Give me a chance and I can change the game.” We did, and in witnessing him infusing the very joy that stems from that collaboration — a theme so prevalent in the Broadway show for which he’s known — into an original show of his own, both in the story of the musical and the process of making it happen, we can declaratively say he’s succeeded in “changing the game” wholeheartedly.
With this, he’s proved he’s remarkably layered. With this, he’s proved he’s astonishingly unstoppable. And with this, he’s proved, as he wished to at the start, he’s so much more than just a simple sponge.
Photos: Jenny Anderson
TodayTix Presents: Ethan Slater Live played the W New York Times Square Hotel (1567 Broadway) on January 12th. The series returns to the venue with Kathryn Gallagher Live on January 28th. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.wnewyorktimessquare.com or www.todaytix.com.