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‘The SpongeBob Musical’ is deep-sea delight for kids, with a whale of a payoff for parents

Submitted by on Jun 21, 2016 – 5:44 pm

Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) tries to see the good day that SpongeBob SquarePants (Ethan Slater) is singing about. (Joan Marcus)

Review: “The SpongeBob Musical,” book by Kyle Jarrow, co-conceived with Tina Landau, songs by various artists. Presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre through July 10. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Ah, to be 10 years old again, and to take in “The SpongeBob Musical” in all its innocent, fanciful charm, its splendorous undersea-world colors, its goofy but (mostly) good-hearted characters. If you’re 10, the “pre-Broadway world premiere” of “SpongeBob” will for sure get five stars, or maybe starfish, like this: Starfish, Starfish, Starfish, Starfish, Starfish.

This lovely, vibrant, ambitiously produced parable – about how we’re all better when we work together, how great things can happen if you never give up, how you can be the person you dream of being – is tailor-made for Mom and Dad and the kids to share.

Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) shows SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) her anti-volcano plan. (Joan Marcus)

Based on the beloved Nickelodeon television series “SpongeBob SquarePants,” the musical is, let us not be coy about it, a children’s show. Its high moral message is aimed directly at impressionable young minds; and while irony streams through SpongeBob’s underwater community of Bikini Bottom, there’s no dry edge to the fundamental positivism, no wry or shadowy hint that no good deed goes unpunished. In SpongeBob’s liquid habitat, a bold heart, cooperation and unstinting effort win the day – actually save the world.

The director, Tina Landau, has been a member at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre since 1997, with not only solid Broadway and regional directing credits but also book and lyric writing for several musicals. The “SpongeBob Musical” songs, all new material written by a slew of musicians from David Bowie and Brian Eno and Yolanda Adams to Cyndi Lauper and the Aerosmith duo of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, express the gamut of emotions from loneliness and self-doubt to resolve and triumph, both personal and communal.

Amigos Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) and SpongeBob (Ethan Slater). (Joan Marcus)It’s hard to say where to hang the biggest Starfish on this show. Maybe on scenic and costume designer David Zinn, whose fantastical, funky Technicolor undersea décor draws the viewer right to the heart of the story before the band has played a lick or a word has been spoken.

Zinn’s costumes are pretty cool, too. Like a skilled painter, with a few flourishes of his brush, Zinn turns recognizable people into cartoon characters – or is it actually the other way around? In any case, Bikini Bottom is populated by, well, folks we can connect with. SpongeBob does not come encased in a big yellow sponge; he wears a yellow shirt and snazzy plaid shorts. He’s a person, a boy – one who might be Peter Pan bounding around in Netherland.

And Ethan Slater’s energetic, agile, indeed pliant SpongeBob is nothing if not a bounder. He’s all over the stage, all at once. Slater’s appeal isn’t so much boyish as childish, in the adorable sense of the word. He also gets into the skin of SpongeBob as irrepressible optimist. This completely happy sponge can find the bright side of any situation, the ray of goodness in the gloomiest day.

His sidekicks are Danny Skinner’s round, reluctant Patrick Star and Lilli Cooper’s brainy albeit long-suffering Sandy Cheeks, who calculates a risky solution when Bikini Bottom is threatened by an undersea volcano.

Squidward Tentacles (Gavin Lee) and company brought down the house with their big tap number. (Joan Marcus)

Evil, or at least menace, is present in the form of Sheldon Plankton, a squirmy little green puppet manipulated and voiced by the seaweed-green clad Nick Blaemire. The teeny twerp runs a food stand, and in the volcano crisis, he sees opportunity for profit. So does his competitor, Eugene Krabs (Carlos Lopez), whose Scrooge-like coveting of cash is the one bit in this show that still needs sharpening.

While I can’t allow myself to invoke the term red herring, I will just say that Gavin Lee’s portrait of pathetic, lonely, feckless Squidward Tentacles sets up the boffo number of the entire enterprise: a rockin’ tap dance production in which poor Squidward imagines himself in a star turn. (Choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s work is an evening-length highlight.) The big dance offers a saucer-eye moment for adults in the house; it stopped the show in its watery tracks. Lee, sporting two sets of legs joined back-to-back at his tapping heels, all but tattooed his name on that stage floor. The explosive response was not the sound of small hands clapping.

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Brilliant colors light up the undersea world of 'The SpongeBob Musical.' (Joan Marcus)

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