The SpongeBob Musical

SpongeBob the Musical
Lilli Cooper and Ethan Slater


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.


Gotta Dance

Earlier this month, I attended the press premiere of the delightful “Potted Potter” with my boyfriend’s mother. As we walked down a hallway to take our seats for the show, we passed a promotional poster for “Gotta Dance,” the latest production from Broadway in Chicago. The faces of Andre De Shields (“The Jungle Book”), Georgia Engel (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Stefanie Powers (“Hart to Hart”) jumped out at us immediately.

One stage icon and two small screen legends would have been more than enough to pull me in, but then I read the production’s synopsis: a “new Broadway-bound musical comedy about professional basketball’s first ever aged 60-and-older dance team.” Beloved performers from my childhood, dancing and the prospect of meaty roles for people over 40? A thousand times yes.

I was fortunate enough to secure reviewer duties for this week’s press opening, featuring a book by Tony Award-nominee Chad Beguelin and Tony Award-winner Bob Martin. The show’s music is the product of Matthew Sklar, Nell Benjamin and a young, upcoming kid by the name of Marvin Hamlisch(!). And “Gotta Dance” choreography is furnished by “Kinky Boots” Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell, in partnership with Nick Kenkel.

From writers to technical work and performers, “Gotta Dance” boasts an impressive pedigree of talent. Yet as we know, the presence of a chorus line of theater legends does not always result in success. I entered the Bank of America Theatre excited yet philosophical.

A resolve to remain impartial dissolved in mere seconds as the tremendously winning ensemble took the stage for “Just Look at Me Now.” The sassy song emphatically and proudly announces a unique and thrilling musical theater experience. I could write thousands of words about my love for this show. Like a fine wine, the production’s experienced artists and technicians have only improved with age.

Imagine an episode of “The Golden Girls,” packed with the same emotion, wit and acting talent, washed down with an energizing song and dance chaser. The press night opening crowd for “Gotta Dance” quite literally went wild. The momentum never slows. In yet another unconventional Broadway musical turn, the second act is actually stronger than the first. Take that “Dirty Dancing.”

Though the fairly straightforward plot can be described in a sentence, there is so much nuance in this semi-biographical story. The stilted estrangement of dance team member Bea (Lillias White) from her granddaughter Kendra (Joanna A. Jones) is a touching commentary on intergenerational misunderstanding. The two women meet three times on “Princess,” a lovely song which traces the evolution of their relationship as the geriatric team prepares for its debut. White and Jones have the vocal chops to convey the lightest wistfulness before belting a powerhouse finish that reaches the farthest recesses of the theater. They have marvelous chemistry.

Camilla (Nancy Ticotin) and Joanne (Powers) bring the sexy to the stage as two members of the “First Wives Club” with something to prove — namely that they still have all of “it.” In the sultry musical number “Como No,?” the 58-year-old Ticotin had me staring at my junior legs with disappointment. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe Camilla with a much younger, satisfied lover. Yowza.

I could scarcely contain my glee with a subplot involving blossoming love between Ron (De Shields) and Dottie (Engel). The two veteran performers are a delightful match. De Shields brings moves of the swing era and tragic comic nuance to his role as a grieving widower resolved to give up hiding. And Engel, well what can I say? She simply steals the show. As Dottie, adorable professional schoolteacher and devoted fan of ’80s and ’90s hip-hop, she is the glue that holds the production together.

The vibrant and wonderful “Gotta Dance” is more than a tasty trifle. The suffering of Alzheimer’s disease, the pain of dreams deferred, the cold sting of rejection from a starter husband — the production is not laughing at the elderly. Instead it giggles and hurts with them, never for a second allowing doubt that older, wiser and sweeter makes for a satisfying product.

By the time the beautiful cast takes the stage for “Get Up,” the rousing finale to this multi-dimensional creation, audiences will wish for a third act. I have spent an embarrassing part of the morning scouring YouTube for unauthorized versions of the track — to no avail. I leave you with two urgent recommendations: see this production as soon and often as possible, and if an original cast soundtrack is released, could you let me know? Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and I just “Gotta Dance.”

“Gotta Dance” runs through Jan. 17, 2016 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

Potted Potter

True story: I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, nor seen any of the eight films from the wildly popular series. I’ll admit that in the Aughts, my resistance was that of a snotty, 20-something faux rebel. I wanted no part of common literature. I had two English degrees!

With time and the increasingly massive success of the pop cultural juggernaut, I started to feel a little foolish. Multiple critical exclamations over the quality of J.K. Rowling’s prose reinforced that I was probably missing something special. But at a certain point, the train had left and I figured it was too late to get onboard. One thing I do know about the Harry Potter series is that the sum total of pages is 4,224. And it takes 19 hours to watch the movies. That’s a serious investment.

So for many reasons I relished the opportunity to see “Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Potter Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff.” The production’s astute marketing position, per press materials, is a “condensing or ‘potting,’ of all seven Harry Potter books into 70 madcap minutes.” A broad, cheeky overview of a time-consuming leviathan. Who could resist that proposition?

I attended press night with a loved one who is my Potter opposite — a devoted fan. I figured if I got stuck on a reference, her presence would be handy indeed. It turns out I needn’t have been concerned. One of the greatest assets of the family-oriented show — beyond the excellence of the two performers — is its ability to appeal to all audiences. Rapid dialogue, song, dance, comedy, audience engagement, props and consumable brevity: quite literally, something for everyone.

BBC Television hosts Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who created “Potted Potter,” do a great job of involving everyone, not only in the story, but in themselves. And just as Rowling adroitly accomplished, the performers interest the adults while remembering the most excited lovers of magic: children.

The tone is set before the show starts when Clarkson walks through the audience, thanking families for attending. As he does, the tall man lowers himself to a kid’s level — in both stature and tone — and welcomes them into the Potter world. Though not part of the script, I enjoyed the delight of the little ones, giddy with the attention, every bit as much as the actual performance.

If you can’t have fun during “Potted Potter,” you’re just a Muggle. There’s a live Quidditch game in the middle of the production which involves good old-fashioned team rivalry, cute kids in wizard hats and Super Soakers. It’s been an extra cynical and painful few news weeks in Chicago. But I dare one to remain smile-immune in the face of so much merriment. It’s good natured and inviting.

Clarkson and Turner give so much of themselves, I’m sure they need a Gatorade and a long nap after the curtain drops. For 70 non-stop minutes they transition between many of the Potter world’s 772 characters. They whiz through the important plot points of seven novels, and they do it with little more than a slew of props and advanced ad-lib and physical comedy skills. The duo displays an endearing love for Potter and a completely admirable respect for children as audience members worthy of a quality experience. With both material and consumer, they get it.

“Potted Potter” is a show for which you want to root, because it’s an all-around joyful experience. It’s icing on the cake that the massive appeal of the institution it lovingly lampoons ensures success. Highly recommended for Potter novices and experts alike, crowds of all ages, and frankly humanity.

“Potted Potter” runs through Jan. 3, 2016 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E Chestnut, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway In Chicago website.


Love and Information


Toward the middle of Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information,” the 19th season opener for Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, a woman who is either hearing impaired, or attempting to communicate with someone who cannot hear, carries a box of Whitman Sampler chocolates. As she runs through the ASL gestures for “I love you,” actress and Bumppo Artistic Associate Linda Gillum pleads with her eyes. Understand me. It’s a lovely scene.

The Whitman’s Sampler is a handy metaphor for the play as a whole, another piece of fresh, interesting work from one of the best mid-size theater operations in Chicago. Directed by Shawn Douglass, the production is a study, per press materials, of “the ways in which the desire for information both distances and unites us.”

Douglass leverages a flawless cast of 10 to slip into the skin of 125 characters, each one part of a vignette that underscores the myriad ways in which knowing and not knowing cause pain and pleasure in human relationships. This might sound quite busy, and indeed Theater 3 at the Greenhouse Theater Center is hardly cavernous. Yet toward the end of the production’s opening night, I found myself comparing it with the recent Broadway in Chicago mounting of “Dirty Dancing – the Classic Story on Stage.”

That big budget effort was an awkward, vertigo-inducing attempt to leave out nothing at all from the beloved film that serves as its base. It just didn’t work. “Love and Information” has arguably more scenes than any stage production I’ve ever audited and yet, it’s a bullseye. Why is that? Because of the oh so light touch, the lack of wink-wink knowingness, the sheer poetry of the source material. A Whitman’s Sampler replaced with the finest, most delicate truffles.

Remy Bumppo’s Producing Artistic Director Nick Sandys observes of the play, “There are no settings, speech headings, or character descriptions in the text. All of those decisions… must come from the director and the design team.” And what a wonderful bunch of arrangements Douglass and his staff have made. It doesn’t hurt one iota that he’s assembled a beautiful cast with the ability to, quite literally, become different people in the blink of an eye. And we believe it.

In addition to Gillum’s work, which I have enjoyed across several seasons of Bumppo theater, I can’t say enough about the talents of yet another Artistic Associate, David Darlow. To watch him move through “Love and Information” is to laugh, have your heart broken, to feel everything in the course of the production’s one hour, 40-minute run time. Although he just one man in an immensely capable ensemble, it’s hard to move your eyes away when he’s on stage. Totally vulnerable yet commanding — the Darlow brand.

This show is different. Fans of linear plot, of context, of narrative arc might find themselves frustrated. I urge these theatergoers to try to get past it. As Sandys suggested before the first curtain rise, “take the ride.” Although one might not connect with every scene, you’ll find yourself nodding your head in silent agreement often. Who among us hasn’t been on the receiving end of pleas from a loved one — share with me, open yourself to me — only to feel the sting of rejection and regret when that data proved to be more than the listener really wanted?

If I have any quibble with the production, it’s this: that one hour, 40-minute running time has no intermission. While I completely understand the decision not to interrupt the “story,” the theater does serve beverages. Make sure you’ve visited the restroom before the curtain rises.

But really, that’s all I’ve got for criticism. “Love and Information” is another Remy Bumppo winner.

“Love and Information” runs through November 1 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Remy Bumppo website.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage

I am an unironic fan of 1987 coming-of-age film classic “Dirty Dancing.” In my humble opinion, there have been but two actors within the last 30 years able to pull off a seamless transition between the best in song and dance, and the virile masculinity of a rugged action star. Those two actors are the gone-too-soon Patrick Swayze, and the thankfully still-kicking Hugh Jackman.

There are, of course, many other reasons to love the movie. That soundtrack. Jennifer Grey’s beautiful curly hair. The nostalgia for the early 1960s. But really? “Dirty Dancing” turned Swayze into an icon — deservedly so.

And yet, the film is not without its problems, one of them being its virtual disregard of the Civil Rights era. Sure, heroine Baby Houseman has vague notions of joining the Peace Corps and making a difference, challenging her father to walk the walk of upper middle class white liberalism by accepting her relationship with dancer Johnny Castle. But as Baby herself notes in the movie, as well as in Broadway in Chicago’s production of “Dirty Dancing,” “You told me you wanted me to change the world, to make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist, and marrying someone from Harvard.”

The stage musical, directed in this limited Windy City run by James Powell, attempts to address the sociopolitical shortcomings of the source material in its first act. Making much over Neil Kellerman’s revisionist humanity (in the film, the character is a proud one percenter), actor Ryan Jesse gawkily and charmingly plans a Southern Freedom Ride with several members of the resort staff. There is a community listening of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech around the vacation bonfire. The scene enriches the fun and frothy experience of the production’s striking and sustained song and dance display.

Alas, those attempts at serious conversation ultimately go nowhere at all in the second act. They are lost in a bewildering rotation of scenery and set pieces, interspersed with small snatches of dialogue from characters who would probably break the metrics functionality of their Fitbits in 2015, there’s so much walking on and offstage. That’s a fair metaphor for my overall assessment of “Dirty Dancing” the stage production: Too busy and unfocused, too much green screen and too much promenade.

The show does have a full awareness of its camp, which is a plus. In an amusing dance training montage, the terrific Gillian Abbott and Christopher Tierney, as Baby and Johnny, move through a series of natural events (swimming, rain, etc.) that simply can’t be staged believably with only lights and moving parts. So the technical team and actors give up entirely and hand the audience a knowing wink, infused with affectionate warmth and respect for its inspiration.

The work is nothing if not faithful to the ’80s cultural phenomenon of “Dirty Dancing.” Most of Baby’s classic wardrobe is carefully re-created by Costume Designer Jennifer Irwin. In fact Irwin does a spectacular job overall capturing the trends and style of the “Mad Men” era, with a modern stage nod to vibrant color. The dialogue is purposefully intact, not withstanding some edits and the addition of scenes that as mentioned, beef up some side characters and attempt to provide historical context.

True fans of the film will enjoy Broadway in Chicago’s mounting of “Dirty Dancing.” And they will be positively overwhelmed by the vocal talent of Jennlee Shallow and Doug Carpenter, who evenly distribute subtlety and show-stopping power in new renditions of standards like “In the Still of the Night (I’ll Remember)” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

But the show has its limits, despite trying to be everything. And that won’t be enough for “Dancing” newcomers. This becomes painfully apparent throughout the production’s second act. A lot less of everything would amount to more.

“Dirty Dancing” runs through August 30 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.