Sorry. I’ll try to be less childishly enthusiastic about “The SpongeBob Musical” for the sake of a literate review of the latest Broadway in Chicago production. But it’s going to be a challenge. The Pre-Broadway World Premiere of this take on the wildly popular cartoon series that began in 1999 is exuberant perfection. It’s nigh-impossible not to sacrifice one’s reserve (willingly) to the overwhelming joy that is every creative, technical and performance element of this show.
The plot, though it would hardly seem to matter given the source material’s colorful, loud reputation, is surprisingly and disarmingly approachable for all ages and cynicism levels. Press materials describe it as follows:
“SpongeBob and all of Bikini Bottom face the total annihilation of their undersea world… And just when all hope seems lost, a most unexpected hero rises up and takes center stage.”
A difficult narrative terrain is successfully traversed by Book writer Kyle Jarrow. The trick is to make the show feel like episodus interruptus for die hard “SpongeBob Squarepants” fans (such as ahem, myself — at least during the late undergrad years). At the same time, the production must be welcoming for newcomers to the 16-year cultural staple. My companion for the evening, a complete stranger to the Squarepants, watched a whole six minutes of the cartoon prior to last weekend’s press opening. By the performance’s regrettable curtain fall, we were equally besotted.
How can this be avoided? The music itself is terrific — diverse, radio-friendly and energetic. And with songwriters on the team such as The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper and T.I., this makes total sense. And yet it should not be taken for granted. I know “Hamilton” tickets went on sale this week in Chicago and the city has lost its relative theatrical mind over it. But “The SpongeBob Musical” deserves to be widely heard and seen. Such quality shall not be lost in the shuffle.
The production also comes with amazing audio/visual work, a set that literally has to be seen to be believed, costumes of which childhood (and adult) dreams are made and goodness me, the performances.
It almost seems unfair to single any one talent out for praise. These people are all-stars and coordinated with magnetic dexterity by show Co-Conceiver/Director Tina Landau. Landau, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company legend, is more than ready for Broadway. Perhaps it is she more than anyone who deserves the raucous and roaring applause the show will continue generating.
But despite what I just said, it’s incumbent upon my role as critic to heap kudos upon key performers. All are without exception terrific, yet Gavin Lee, as submerged Eeyore figure Squidward Tentacles, nearly walks off with the production. That man can dance like an angel with four feet. It’s hard enough for mortals with just two. I won’t say more because a continuous stream of delightful surprises is part of the magic. Just one more tease: Squidward’s big number is a show stopper.
And Ethan Slater, as the cartoon’s titular, kind-hearted and earnest if dizzy character, is everything. I mean literally everything: an acrobat, a man of a thousand voices, a break dancer, an amazing vocal talent and deft comedian. This 2014 Vassar graduate is about to break big — and deserves every bit of what promises to be a long career on the Great White Way.
“The SpongeBob Musical” is all superlatives and offers a genuinely inspirational message along with top-tier entertainment. The weary of spirit are especially recommended to buy their tickets before this refreshing, unexpected jolt of fabulousness departs the Windy City.
“The SpongeBob Musical” runs through July 10 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.