I went into Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical expecting to love it. I walked away overwhelmed, dazzled, and oddly full of hope.
See, the Palace Theatre lobby is a little like Disneyland – for the first time walking into a musical, felt as if I was slowly moving into an experience rather than just a stage show. It subtly welcomes you into this world with a beach-themed shack selling merchandise and yellow mood lighting in the lobby. Moving further in reveals neon floral lights resembling the stretched floral prints dotting the sky of Bikini Bottom. The ‘story’ moves at your own pace, and you’re welcome to sink deeper in as you move further.
Then you enter the theater itself, and in an instant, you’re underwater, like you’re passing under the train station and entering a fantasy world.. The room is lit in deep aqua tones, and shimmering foil fringe curtains reflect light off a set made of found objects. Pool noodles represent coral, and the proscenium, not only neon but mechanical, providing an important role later in the show, features swirling PVC pipe and items like a bicycle or a shopping cart, sunken undersea ages ago. Familiar sea shanties and beach tunes play over the loudspeaker system, and a small model of Spongebob’s street sits center stage, framed by projection-mapped waves.
And that’s just before the show starts. It’s pretty easy to get swept away in the theming and not even notice the band entering, dressed in beach garb, playing a live set featuring the kazoo. I give major props to the band, who work through a score featuring music by over 10 different composers. The show moves quickly through its score, and while the music can seem disjointed originally, the band performs with ease and flair, strung together with orchestrations by Tom Kitt of Next to Normal fame. A special nod goes to the live foley artist featured in the band, who plays sound effects at key moments, from Spongebob and Squidward’s signature walking noises to cartoonish whooshing when Spongebob and Sandy perform karate chops.
The plot is standard, as far as Spongebob plots go. It’s a typical day in Bikini Bottom until an earthquake rocks the town, originating from a volcano bound to erupt in a few days’ time. The townspeople fall into chaos in typical Bikini Bottom-fashion. Plankton aims to convince the town to leave in one of his inventions which will hypnotize citizens into enjoying his restaurant’s food, while Spongebob, Sandy, and Patrick work to stop the volcano from exploding and save their home.
The show deals with modern-day US issues in a way that’s both friendly to younger viewers and hits home for the adults in the audience. There’s discussion of racism and xenophobia in regards to the treatment of Sandy Cheeks by the citizens of Bikini Bottom. Sandy poses opposition to Plankton’s plan and is met with backlash from science-skeptical citizens. even seeing graffiti on the wall reading ‘Mammals Go Home.’ Lilli Cooper of the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening expertly portrays the sea-dwelling squirrel. It’s worth noting that of the leading roles, Sandy is one of only two people of color – both actresses (the other being standout performer Jai’len Christine Li Josey, who plays Pearl Krabs) play underwater mammals.
Unfortunately, as in the show, Pearl’s situation regarding her parentage is glossed over by the narrative. I would have liked to see this explored more regarding Pearl – some exploration of their shared status as undersea mammals would have been effective and interesting. The musical has a tendency to pair characters in scenes who don’t usually interact on TV, such as Pearl and Squidward planning a Bikini Bottom benefit concert, and I would have really appreciated something like this.
Sandy, as a character in both the show and the musical, is often portrayed as discredited by the majority residents in her area. Because of the hurdles she faces from the residents of Bikini Bottom, she has to work twice as hard just to make her voice heard. Having a woman of color playing Sandy brings the unfortunate real-life implications of this plot to the forefront – this, amongst other things, is something people of color face every day. Fortunately, the writing and direction presents Sandy as a character to admire and root for despite how the fish treat her, who are clearly staged as being in the wrong. She’s easily one of my favorites – and I especially love the design of her costume, which is both fun and fashionable. It definitely fits Sandy’s ‘can-do’ attitude and sporty aesthetic.
Regarding the title character, Ethan Slater portrays Spongebob with all the joy and exuberance of his cartoon counterpart. His Spongebob has more layers than is usually allowed, as he tries to find his place and meaning in the Spongebob-Sandy-Patrick team. Spongebob and Patrick’s friendship is as sweet and supportive as it is in the show, though I found the treatment of Patrick alone to be one of the show’s few low points. In the cartoon, jokes surrounding Patrick often surround his confusion regarding his situation, but many of the show’s lines veer towards commenting on his eating habits or weight. I loved Danny Skinner’s turn as Patrick, but hearing so many fatphobic remarks being thrown around regarding his character really upset me as a fat audience member – oftentimes even taking me out of the show’s beat-to-beat narrative.
The show also takes a hard look at issues of mass hysteria, religious fanaticism, and corrupt government as the volcano gets closer and closer to erupting. The media continues to spin stories to make the fish panic, and the Mayor of Bikini Bottom manipulates them, portraying herself as a savior and at one point ruling the town under martial law. Meanwhile, a doomsday cult appears around Patrick formed by some sardines who happen to overhear a throwaway line of his regarding his life’s philosophy. This develops into a whole B-plot with two musical numbers surrounding it. It’s pretty ambitious to cover all these topics in a 2 hour musical, but this show does it in a way that is not only believable for the setting, but also hits home with real life allegory for the audience.
All in all? I loved this show. Watching Spongebob and Sandy work together to save the day, Squidward finally get his star turn in a scene-stealing piece by They Might Be Giants, and Pearl work to follow her dreams despite her dad’s greedy ways uplifted me. I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to feel nostalgic – because watching this show made me feel like I was having the Best Day Ever.
Tickets for Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical can be purchased here. Same day rush tickets can be purchased starting at 10AM at the Palace Theatre box office – supplies are limited. To enter the online ticket lottery, click here.