Before the Thanksgiving holiday, I was able to get tickets to see the Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical. As I was on vacation during the Thanksgiving holiday I didn’t have time to post my review, but during the time off I’d time to write a thorough review since enough time has passed for me to think about the performance without coming from a place of bias, you know, liking something because I felt good about it at the time which often happens after spending two or three hours in the presence of a high energy piece such as a musical or concert where afterwards I feel too elated to think critically about what you’ve just seen.
Of course, since I’m not a professional critic and just a simple hobby blogger this won’t be a Ben Brantley or witty New York Times style review. I do go to the theatre as often as my wallet will allow and I have been an avid theatre fan since I was a child, I’m sure those two fact make me qualified to give a theatre review!
First off I should just throw it out there that I’ve been looking forward to seeing this musical for about a year, but there are other reasons why I was excited to see the show:
First, being one of millions of millennials who grew up watching the TV show Spongebob Squarepants. The show is practically etched in my life some way or another. I’m not ashamed to say that I own at least one piece of SB memorabilia, though I wouldn’t consider myself a hardcore fan, I love the show and have a soft-spot for its characters.
Second, I’m also a fan of Tom Kenny who is one of the songwriters on SBSPTM and the voice of Spongebob on the animated show as well as the voice of the Ice King on Adventure Time, another show that I absolutely love. These days, when it comes to the success of a Broadway show there are only two things that signal a great musical (and it ain’t the music or the cast); one, a flawless out-of-town reviews during the preproduction stage, and two, no revisions or modification in production or direction, the casting, music, or book. Fortunately as far as I know there were no revisions, the Chicago reviews for SBSPTM were great, and journalists spoke positively on NPR and in other publications. Anyway, reviews aside, anything that Kenney does I’m always excited to see.
Third, Tom Kitt and David Zinn. Kitt, who arranged and composed music for one of my favorite musicals Next To Normal, is also the musical arranger and supervisor on SBSPTM, and Zinn who did set production for Fun Home and The Humans.
And lastly, besides Tom Kenny, the list of contributing songwriters: David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, The Flaming Lips, T.I., Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and Yolanda Adams to name a few.
So, pros and cons. I’ll start with the pros:
As I write this, the musical is still in previews until December 4th. I went on a Thursday night, the week before Thanksgiving, and purchased seats in the mezzanine because sweetie, I’m working class folk, and there are two more holidays and a couple of birthdays I have to shell out for before the years over (on top of my high ass rent). My money is precious! My seat were center mezzanine, which, when seeing shows at The Palace Theatre can be a game of Russian Roulette, even if you’re sitting in the orchestra but I had a great view. My usual criticism about most of today’s musical productions is that some directors seem to direct with the orchestra and the first three rows of the mezzanine in mind. You go to a performance hoping to enjoy a great time only to be able to see three-quarters of the performance because your view is obstructed by a stage light and the producers didn’t give a rat’s ass to take the time out to work the production around the theatre’s design. But director Tina Landau and her team really did a great job at making sure that the audience in the mezzanine and balcony seats got as thorough a visceral experience as did those in the orchestra section and the house was full.
I would describe SBSPTM as Wicked meets Rent with a dash of Marc Shamann meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It’s colorful, bright and energetic with the typical pop-friendly score you’d expect from today’s musicals. The show ebbs and flows in a nice balance of radiance and frivolity, but to me it’s kind of like a musical version of a warmed marshmallow, a gooey, sugary, sweet treat you enjoy because it reminds you of summer camp and slumber parties, or simply because it makes you feel good. And indeed, the show has a lot of great things going for it, with one of those things being the staging, which is inventive, eye-catching, entertaining, and all around cool as fuck. With the staging here is an emphasis on found objects; ladders, foam board, boxes, as well as a few marvelous pink umbrellas used in one of the most inventive and unique ways I’ve ever seen an umbrella used in a musical since Gene Kelley and his umbrella in Singing in The Rain, and gives the musical a whimsical almost Pee-Wee’s Playhouse type of feel to its set design. The costume design, I don’t know of any other way to describe it except Williamsburg hipster chic, circa 2000 to 2009 and then 2014 to 2016 with the tropical print craze. Those of you who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as I did know what I’m talking about. Just exceptionally random, weird, and extra as all get out. Plaid pants with suspenders and boots, Hawaiian shirts and New Balance sneakers, track suits with space shoes. I’m sure hipster chic wasn’t what the costume design team was going for, but I thought it was really cool.
David Zinn’s scenic design is always a cut above normal. To me, his work reminds me of Louise Nevelson’s sculptures like Atmosphere and Environment X and Sky Cathedral. There is definitely the trademark Zinn style which devours the stage and extends outside of it. With SBSPTM, it’s like his vision was to have an Ikea fuck a Home Depot while it was messing around with a Home Goods side chick and afterwards had a bunch of out of wedlock Toys R’Us babies. And the kid part of my brain loved every silly, fucking minute of it. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a part in the play involving two ball shooter-like gadgets that it’ll really blow your mind. Zinn really succeeded in recreating the fun, wacky energy of Bikini Bottom onto such as small stage.
I did not watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, but heard that the cast performed Best Day Ever which is the weakest songs in the musical’s roster. I still don’t understand why they performed THAT song? Well, I do, in that the parade is popular with children and families. Still, talk about missed opportunities. For one, even though it’s a song that is very recognizable in the SBSP universe it’s not exactly the best song to use if the producers had hoped to show how good their show is. In fact, if the producers wanted to really get the ball rolling with buzz for the show, their best was with the Gavin Lee’s (Squidward) solo of I’m Not a Loser, the most popular number in the show followed by Daddy Knows Best and When The Going Gets Tough (Plankton’s song). Anyone of these numbers would’ve been better, but the Gavin Lee/Squidward number would’ve absolutely killed. Unfortunately, I did see some of the unenthusiastic Twitter responses to the cast’s performance which is a damn shame because not only is the cast great and that performance at the parade doesn’t do the production justice, at all, but also since that one musical number in no way reflects how cool the show is.
Besides the 1990s hip-hop throwback When the Going Gets Tough, written by T.I., Domani Harries, & Darwin Quinn and the Dreamgirls-esque Daddy Knows Best written by Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, other standout songs include: (Just A) Simple Sponge written by Panic! At The Disco, and Super Star Savior written by Yolanda Adams, another number that received an enthusiastic response from the crowd.
The costumes are inventive, cool, and clever. The little details in the costume design will really blow your mind, because what’s so clever about them is that you don’t realize how unique they are until later. Like, for example, and again, without giving too many things away, going with the found objects theme, how the designers got around portraying Sandy’s helmet by styling Lilian Cooper’s hair into an afro, Mr. Krab’s claws as two large re boxing gloves, and even cooler, and Jai’Len Christine‘s hair styled to emulate Pearl’s box-shaped head. There are so many details like these throughout the show that I absolutely loved. I loved how my brain noticed so many of these details, I felt like I knew something that the rest of the audience didn’t!
The main cast is great. Great energy, chemistry, and attitudes. And I’m saying this as someone who’s seen Matthew Broderick on and off Broadway. I mean, he’s just a whole ass exhausting human being, but he’s so much fun to watch ‘cause he’s a wealthy-ass honey badger. And honey badger don’t give a fuck (Remember that reference, fellow kids?).
Anyway, Ethan Slater as SpongeBob is energetic and spirited. Can I also say that he is also fit as fuck? As in, he is in shape? In this cultural climate, can I say this as a passing compliment without seeming like a sexist creep? Because it is a compliment steeped in respect. Because for all of the physical work on top of singing Ethan has to do in the show he pulls it off flawlessly. This all makes sense since I think Ethan was a wrestler in either high school or college or both. So, no doubt the dude is running sprints and squatting twice his weight. Before I went to the show, I got to see some clips of Ethan on YouTube, as well as the rest of the cast in various stage productions. Ethan shines as a physical actor, which is a rarity. I’m talking about going to a musical where the actors only move once the song is cued up, actors that are so stiff and boring on stage that they forget that they and their characters are human beings.
Biggest standouts: Gavin Lee as Squidward
Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton
Stephanie Hsu as Karen The Computer (aka Mrs. Plankton/Plankton’s wife)
Jai’Len Chritine Li Josey as Pearl Krabs
The biggest standing ovations of the night went in order of: Jai’Len Christine, Wesley Taylor and Stephanie Hsu, Ethan and Danny. Not that any of this matters, but I say this because I feel that these are the people to look out for on Broadway, especially Jai’Len Christine who is making her B’way debut but performs as though she were a seasoned professional. And her voice! WOW! I loved the chemistry between Stephanie Hsu and Wesley Taylor would love to see them work together in the future.
The supporting cast is so good it’s depressing. Their characters; Larry the Lobster, The Mayor, Miss. Puff, The Sardines, and Peach Perkins, I felt like their characters were mostly present as plot devices to help move the show along rather than being central to the story. Because in using a show such as SBSP where the supporting characters are as memorable and important as the main stays, I was very disappointed that many of the well-known characters such as Miss Puff, The Mayor, and Larry the Lobster, Old Man Jenkins were made as background characters with minor lines and involvement in the musical beyond a few one-liners or short singing stints. I mean, these are fully fleshed out characters on the show, especially Miss Puff and Larry who are also integral characters and fixtures in many of the episodes of the show. I mean, Larry and Miss Puff aren’t just some boneheaded characters with a bunch of throw away one liners. Their characters are multifaceted and just like SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy, have complex feelings and desires that are central beyond just being simple plot devices to move a particular episode along. And because the supporting cast is so good, I really think it’s a shame that their parts aren’t bigger and are so one-dimensional. It’s s shame that the actors cast to play Puff, Larry, and Mr. Jenkins didn’t get a chance to really show what they could do because they really did remarkably for the little material they were given.
Still, the cast manages to create a fun, energetic musical experience.
Okay, now the cons.
See, the thing about SBSPTM is that it’s (obviously) a show that wants to be cool and hip, you know, in an appropriating-something-familiar-but-niche-into-something-comfortable-for-the-consumption-of-the- gullible-masses kind of way. What I’m saying is, it’s malt liquor cocktails, sriracha flavored pork rinds, a bodega turned into a bar called “Bo-dega” or whatever. It’s taken something aimed for kids and is also loved by adults, and reinventing it in a cash-grab move to get a bunch of stuffy theatre goers to spend crazy bucks to enjoy it. I mean look at Hamilton: a boring history lesson about a boring president made cool with a hip-hop score and rap. But the problem is, it’s not as clever as (as Hamilton) because it’s not its own thing. It doesn’t allow itself to be its own thing, as if the people putting it together were too afraid to lose control with it, which considering the subject material, should’ve been the point. I feel that the play is trying to appeal to two groups of audience members: hardcore millennial fans of the SpongeBob series who grew up with the show and millennials who’re not really into musicals but loved Hamilton and/or Dear Evan Hansen and want more of the same. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a neat show, but it’s not really cool enough for who it wants to target nor is it engaging enough for the stiff theatre set who’ll probably more likely to feel silly or bored than feel like kids again. If its target audience is millennials, then it’s too niche. Plus, not many millennials can afford to see Broadway plays. High rents, student loan and credit card debts, low rages, you know, real life stuff, gets in the way of being so fee with one’s wallet. I was able to see it because I live a modest life, and I saved up.
When I say that the show’s creators are aiming SBSPTM towards niche, here’s an example; and is that plays out like an episode of SBSP, if you’ve watched the show you’re familiar with all of the show then you’re familiar with all of the zany cut scenes and jokes. Well, some of those zany cuts and jokes are in the show, and without giving any of them away, I’ll say that they’re definitely SBSP fans will recognize. As a fan of the show, I’m able to enjoy these elements because, well, of course, I recognize them. But, for the audience members that don’t recognize the gag, they’re kind of left confused. I think Landau and her team tried to imbue these elements as simple jokes, but they fell flat and on the night I was there, only myself and a few people laughed. Another problem that I had with the comedy and timing which I felt were a bit tame in that neither had the same sort of off the cuff, fly by the seat of your pants silliness as the TV show. The energy of the show is high and zany, and definitely a HUGE pat on the back should be given to the entire cast, the lightening and production team, and the conductor Julie McBride whose participation to the show keeps the atmosphere entertaining and kooky. Still, being a fan of the TV show, I can understand why capturing the world of Bikini Bottom is so difficult. For one, it’s atypical, out of the ordinary from the real world, secondly, recreating the world of the TV show would probably be too exhausting for the actors to perform (just SO MUCH craziness), and thirdly, attempting to portray the world of Bikini Bottom onstage would probably fall flat like trying to recreate a sketch from, say, a 1960s TV show like Benny Hill or Laugh-In. It’s all just too crazy, too over-the-top and the jokes would file over people’s heads.
Lilli Cooper as Sandy. She is a wonderful singer and actress and she does her best, but watching her I felt as though she wasn’t having fun, that she was too self-conscious and was playing too straight for the role. It’s weird because according to her bio, she was in Wicked at one point. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the combo pressure of being a lead having to put on a flawless show whilst in previews. Still, to be in a musical such as this you having to let go of the seriousness, allow yourself to play and be silly. This is why Ethan, Danny, Wesley, Stephanie, Brian Ray Norris (Eugene Krabs), and most definitely Gavin Lee all shine in their roles. I’m confident, if she stays with the show, that she’ll have more fun with her performance as the show progresses onward.
Lastly, SBSPTM boasts a long list of pop and rock musicians such as David Bowie, T.I., Sarah Barellis. With such a group, the songs/score should be stronger, memorable. The songs are good individually but don’t mess well with the musical, so what happens is that the end result it’s one of those musicals where the songs/score doesn’t work without the performance. For example, some of the best scores are the ones you can listen to as if your favorite band or singer performed it themselves. Think of Evita, Cats, Rent, Bernstein scores, and of course Hamilton. I mean, I know a ton of people that’ve never seen Rent, but have at least half of the score on their iPhones. The best musical songs/scores are like pop songs you hear on the radio, they resonate far beyond the stage into people’s lives. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear any songs like that in SBSPTM. They were well performed, in some cases (Pearl and Plankton) exceptionally performed, but I don’t see them becoming their own thing outside of the musical.
Folks, I want this musical to have a long ass run.
I want this musical to run for five, ten years or more and make a badrillion dollars and be a pop culture smash. I want Gavin Lee, Jai’Len, and Welsey Taylor, Stephanie Hsu, and Ethan Slater to be the next big things on Broadway, I want the cast to be the toast of the town. I want the cast and show to win a ton of awards, to destroy at the Tonys.
I don’t see this show having a Les Mis or Cats type of run, but it’s quite likely that, as time goes onw and depending on how well it’s received in reviews, even without the Tonys, that it could be as financially successful as Kinky Boots or School of Rock, or hell, even as well as Nice Work If You Can Get It which had terrible reviews but was on for over a year and made a nice profit.
It’ll probably do well at the Tonys, so my opinion is pretty nill anyway.
Though a musical like this would, from the outside, seem more kid-friendly, in my opinion, I don’t think that the producers’ aim is for this show to attract children as its main audience. I’d hate to see a show like this become a night at Sesame Street Live!, because a show like this should do more than attract more a family-friendly fare than it had intended. I think the marketing and word-of-mouth may be working because on the night I went to see the show the house was full of adults with a very small scattering of kids attending.
There’s a lot to say about this show, but all in all, I’d recommend it as a great night out at the theatre if you don’t want anything too serious, just some sincere, silly fun.
© 2017 • CoffeeCupcakesKafka