"SpongeBob" is Full of Surprises!
A friend asked me recently what I look for in a great evening of theater. I waxed poetic in my response, insisting that “I want to be wowed. To be astonished. To be emotionally moved, surprised, and dazzled by stagecraft. I want to be in awe of performances and be reminded why I believe that theater is the single greatest form of communication on the planet.” I finished this lofty statement by admitting that it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, the waiting is totally worth it.
I did not expect the first national tour of The SpongeBob Musical to fit into the “knock my socks off and remind me of all the reasons I love theater” category. But it does.
Playing at Madison’s Overture Center through October 13, this over-the-top, completely delightful, musical extravaganza does indeed focus on the adventures of persistently optimistic, yellow kitchen sponge in brown shorts who lives in a pineapple under the sea. For fans of the long-running cartoon on Nickelodeon, the show features the entire cast of familiar characters; a slothful starfish and SpongeBob’s best friend Patrick Star (an easy-going Beau Bradshaw); the karate chopping, Texas twanging squirrel who excels in science, Sandy Cheeks (a firecracker with an enormous voice Daria Pilar Redus); the gloomy, worst-case-scenario, clarinet playing octopus Squidward (the impossibly light on his feet Daria Pilar Redus); the charmingly evil, bad guy with a plan for worldwide, fast-food domination, Sheldon Plankton (a mesmerizing Tristan Mcintyre); and schools of other undersea creatures that populate Bikini Bottom.
But when Steppenwolf company member and renowned experimental director Tina Landau signed on to develop the Broadway musical, she was adamant about its tone, style and content, insisting that she was not interested in creating “a theme park show.” This meshed perfectly with the vision of then-president of Nickelodeon and Viacom Media Networks Kids & Family Group, Cyma Zarghami. In an interview in the New York Times, she recalled giving the assignment for developing The SpongeBob Musical: “If you can find somebody who can translate it in the most clever way possible, so that people are in awe of it, in the way they were originally in awe of The Lion King, then I’m all in.”
Working before the script was written, Landau began holding actor workshops with clowns, dancers, acrobats and magicians to explore an absurd, dada-esque undersea landscape where SpongeBob would eventually live. The result is an unorthodox show that builds on existing characters in an uber-theatrical environment, while exploring themes that are both topical and important for audiences of any age, including global warming, xynophobia, anti-intellectualism, government bureaucracy and detachment, plastics polluting the oceans, reactionary media, doomsday cults and businesses that prioritize money over people. Using stagecraft that is imaginative, witty, and startlingly original, the show is a reminder of what is possible in live theater.
Fittingly, performances are broad and exuberant. As SpongeBob, Pugilese celebrates his friendships and encourages everyone in Bikini Bottom to believe this will be the “Best Day Ever.” His pinched, nasally voice, endless energy, and his ability to bend like Silly Putty while singing his heart out is astonishing. Similarly, Redus’s Sandy is chock full of girl/squirrel power, determination and faith in science to solve any problem. (She is also a heroine unencumbered with a love story, which is a nice change of pace.) Perhaps most entertaining, Mcintyre’s Sheldon Plankton is wily and weird, a blend of Dr. Evil and Keanu Reeves, who is as needy as he is greedy.
Visually, the production is smart and overwhelming in the best sense. Using extensive projections (which were, unfortunately, incorrectly focused on opening night); the spotlights, gobos, smoke and strobes of a rock concert; and rave-like neon props and costumes that glow under black lights, every element of SpongeBob looks magical. (Lighting design by Kevin Adams.)
The costumes, designed by David Zinn, are simply outrageous. They include a ‘90s grunge band on skateboards, a dancing, screaming crabby patty, a chorus line of bright pink sequined anemone dancers with handpuppet gloves, and the engineering marvel that is Squidward’s four tap dancing legs. Every principle character’s outfit pays homage to the cartoon, while the other creatures looks like crazed muppets.
Zinn’s set, and his costumes to a lesser extent, are reminiscent of an exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium, where artists were challenged to make enormous sculptures of sea creatures using plastics and trash that were pulled out of our polluted oceans. This same melange of cast-off objects being transformed into other things informs his brilliant stage full of ladders that become a volcano, the shipping containers that stand in for the base of a mountain, and even Patrick Star’s crown, made from an old bleach bottle. Plastic pieces that could (sadly) be found on any beach cover many clothing pieces.
Both costumes and set also played wildly with scale and mixed high and low tech with beautiful results. Don’t look for SpongeBob’s pineapple home to be recreated in great detail here. Sometimes it’s a miniature model. Sometimes it’s a sheet of cardboard that’s held by other cast members. Sometimes it’s a plaything for the conductor -- who also serves as chief prop-catcher during many scenes.
Musically the show is unusual because the score is a mix of songs written by more than a dozen composers, most from top 40 bands that span the last several decades. It’s easy to hear David Bowie and Brian Eno in the dark, somewhat out of synch “No Control,” and “Chop to the Top” by Lady Antebellum doesn’t pack the same punch as the rest of the numbers, but in general it’s a very hummable group. “BFF,” complete with dancing letters, is a completely charming number, contributed by Plain White T’s, and The Flaming Lips’ “Tomorrow Is” ends act one by perfectly summing up each character’s upcoming challenge.
The other brilliant addition to the soundscape of the show is an onstage Foley artist, who supplies numerous sound effects, providing cartoony, vaudeville-esque humor with every squeaky foot step and slide whistle. (Enormous props to the blue haired Ryan Blihovde for his creative percussion.)
And finally, sit and be amazed by Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, which ranges from full on Broadway in the splashy tap number “I’m Not a Loser,” to out-of-this-world “sponge ballet” in “Just a Simple Sponge,” to the craziest hand-jive moves, performed with precision by glowing sardines.
Perhaps it’s absurd that so much originality and talent went into creating a fantastic reboot of a Nickelodeon character. But maybe a pineapple under the sea is exactly the right place to show it all off.