SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical is so busy it makes an Alex Timbers production look almost desultory by comparison. Sort of the anti-The Band’s Visit, SpongeBob—with a book by Kyle Jarrow, taking off from the hit animated show—is a nonstop swirl of color, dazzle, moving sets and props, and inventive silliness. Two Rube Goldberg-like sets—one on each side of the theater—ingeniously dispense boulders, while the cast climbs ladders, the snail meows, the plankton plots, and whoever’s left drinks kelp juice. Amidst all the commotion, I was grazed in the head by a mobile a cast member was twirling in the aisle, and I’m still picking confetti and streamers out of my hair from the finale, but it’s all intended as giddy fun, so I’ll probably drop the lawsuit.
For all of that over-the-topness, SpongeBob (Ethan Slater)—who’s sort of an underwater Pee-wee Herman, an eternal optimist who longs to be accepted—merely wears pants, a shirt, and suspenders, while Squidward (Gavin Lee), the rather flaming squid who aims to play clarinet and tap dance, only has four legs, though they all walk—and dance quite nicely too, as it turns out in a particularly nutty sequence.
The plot, such as it is, involves the title character’s desperation to prove he’s not a simple sponge, as he teams with inventor/karate chopper Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) and her “erupter interrupter” to stop a volcano from blowing and destroying Bikini Bottom. (Yes, the show is set in a big Bottom. Enough said.) That’s about it—along with some commentary regarding the scapegoating of ethnic groups, I mean species (land mammals are targeted by the wetter creatures) and misuse of power by politicians.
But the eclectic score, by an assortment of artists including David Bowie, John Legend, and Panic at the Disco, amazingly seems of a piece, and director Tina Landau’s cleverness keeps things frantically eye-catching, along with David Zinn’s tireless sets and costumes. That’s especially the case in Act One, when highlights include a gospel choir of singing sardines with synchronized hand gestures, and a Mary J. Blige-sounding vocal turn by Jai’Len Christie Li Josey as a whale of a gal named Pearl. (The creators should have been advised to give Josey a second big number and also dispense with the pirate character, SpongeBob’s number one fan, who starts the show and intermittently drops by for underwhelming moments.)
The first act almost reminded me of wacky 1980s shows done in the East Village, but this time on a big budget. Its exuberant zaniness verges on too much of a good thing, but you miss the energy onslaught in Act Two, at least until Squidward taps his four legs around, backed by guys and gals in pink feathered headdresses and red spangles, suddenly making this La Cage aux Fish. If you’re allergic to silliness—or seafood—then avoid this show, but anyone angling for some lavishly thought-out lunacy should squeeze this sponge tightly.