Walking into the Palace Theater to view the new musical extravaganza “SpongeBob SquarePants,” your senses are attacked by a barrage of Crayola colors, shimmering tinsel, happy music and an array of ornamental objects that appear as though Pee Wee Herman went overboard at Party City, shopping for a big beach bash. As you scrutinize the multifarious audience, there is a continuous inspection or marveling at the décor, the obligatory taking of selfies and the murmur of anticipation of what awaits when the performance begins. This group of theatergoers seem to be in familiar territory and has expectations that in part have already been satisfied. The show begins and as the lead character (a limber and enthusiastic Ethan Slater) appears crossing the stage with a sprightly, fluid strut, in a yellow shirt, checkered pants, suspenders and a red tie, a tiny voice from the child behind me exclaims, “that’s not SpongeBob.” Now what?
Not to worry since there are enough neon colors, abstract shapes, flamboyant costumes and elaborate sets by David Zinn, with frantic movements and pedestrian choreography by Christopher Gattelli, to induce a distraction, so elements of plot and depth of characters become paltry. The collection of songwriters assembled, not limited to but including such names as John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles and Lady Antebellum assures a diverse conglomeration of styles from rap to gospel to pop to Broadway. The “save the world” plot that is chock full of morals and optimism is simple and easy to follow, with musical numbers that attempt to move the action forward with little success, but provide actors the opportunity to showcase their vocal ability in big Broadway belt style. Venturing away from the typical Broadway musical formula (sans love interest) it is difficult to describe what this production is trying to accomplish, (albeit entertaining), besides selling an enormous amount of marketing merchandise at the large concession area in the lobby.
The cast is fully competent in execution and seems to be enjoying themselves without being bogged down with character development, or a complicated book accredited to Kyle Jarrow. It is light and fluffy entertainment seen through a psychedelic kaleidoscope of ever-changing shapes and colors that may visually satisfy but lacks that mystical, magical artistic aura that suspends you in disbelief. Ethan Slater produces a limber, buoyant, animated, sanguine SpongeBob, with a fine voice (sometimes in cartoon character) to compliment his character. Gavin Lee is delicious and delirious as Squidward Q. Tentacles, complete with four legs and a lavish, show stopping tap number in the second act. Danny Skinner is admirable as BFF, Patrick Star (a wannabe STARfish). The squirrel Sandy Cheeks is inhabited by the delightful Lilli Cooper with a sense of intelligence. Wesley Taylor portrays a villainous Sheldon Plankton with a slimy complexion. Eugene Krabs is depicted with sharp wit and harmless authority (complete with big red boxing gloves) by Brian Ray Norris.
Tina Landau has created an inventive production that provides enough amusement and razzle dazzle to satisfy audiences that are familiar with this famed Nickelodeon character and his cohorts but will not in any fashion keep the interest of serious theatergoers. It is a vibrant spectacle that sparkles but does not shine.
The “SpongeBob SquarePants” cast includes Ethan Slater as SpongeBob SquarePants, Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks, Brian Ray Norris as Eugene Krabs, Danny Skinner as Patrick Star and Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton. The ensemble includes Alex Gibson, Gaelen Gilliland, Juliane Godfrey, Kyle Matthew Hamilton, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Hsu, Jesse JP Johnson, L’ogan J’ones, Jai’len Christine Li Josey, Kelvin Moon Loh, Lauralyn McClelland, Vasthy Mompoint, Oneika Phillips, Jon Rua, JC Schuster, Abby C. Smith, Robert Taylor Jr., Allan Washington, Brynn Williams, Matt Wood and Tom Kenny as the French Narrator.
The design team includes scenic and costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by Kevin Adams, projection design by Peter Nigrini, sound design by Walter Trarbach, hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe and casting by Telsey + Company/Patrick Goodwin, CSA. Production photos by Joan Marcus.
For more information on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” visit www.SpongeBobBroadway.com. Tickets are available online via Ticketmaster.com, by calling 877-250-2929 or at The Palace Theatre box office (1564 Broadway - Broadway at 47th Street). Ticket prices range from $49.00 to $159.00. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes
Photo: Ethan Slater and the Cast of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Credit: Joan Marcus.