Chicago Theatre Review
Super Sea Savior
The SpongeBob Musical – Broadway in Chicago
Big, bright, boisterous, colorful, creative and crammed full of humor and joy, this giddy, glorious family musical literally bubbles and explodes with fun. No, this show isn’t another “Hamilton” or even a “Les Miserables,” but it’s a show that’s a heck of a lot of fun. In this pre-Broadway tryout, it offers a beguiling, eye-popping entertainment with a positive message about friendship and community. Its title character is a positive Everyman who sees today, and actually every day, as “The Best Day Ever.” How refreshing. How admirable. How out of this world!
The story, which features most of the characters from the popular animated Nickelodeon TV series, is about how an energetic, optimistic young citizen of the sea named SpongeBob SquarePants tries to help overcome an environmental calamity. Mount Humongous, an underwater volcano, is rumbling loudly and hurling rocks and boulders at Bikini Bottom (thanks to a couple spectacular Rube Goldberg contraptions), that could potentially harm its citizens. The probability is certain that it’s about to erupt. However, with the help of his friends and a united community, SpongeBob ultimately saves the day.
Young SpongeBob, who lives in a pineapple house at the bottom of the sea, loves life and even enjoys his menial job flipping crabby cakes at the Krusty Krab. However, SpongeBob’s longtime dream is to be promoted to restaurant manager. SpongeBob believes in himself and is confident that he’s got the organizational skills and creativity to make Mr. Krab’s establishment the best eatery in Bikini Bottom.
Other characters from the cartoon series who feature prominently in this joyful musical include SpongeBob’s best friend, Patrick Star, who’s a somewhat dimwitted starfish; Squidward Tentacles, a dour octopus and his next-door neighbor, who also works with SpongeBob at the restaurant; Sandy Cheeks, a smart squirrel scientist from Texas; Eugene Krabs, the miserly crustacean who owns the Krusty Krab; Eugene’s whiney whale daughter, Pearl; Sheldon Plankton, Eugene’s chief rival as the owner of a fast-food emporium called the Chum Bucket and his wife, Karen the Computer. Other minor characters who populate the ensemble include the Mayor, Mrs. Puff, Larry the Lobster, Old Man Jenkins, Perch Perkins, Fred the Fish, Maxine the Sardine and a pirate fanboy named Patchy.
Written by Kyle Jarrow, the author of one of Chicago Christmas traditions, “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” the musical comes alive with songs by more than a dozen popular, contemporary songwriters. They include Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Sara Bareilles, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, John Coulton, The Flaming Lips, Panic! At the Disco, the Plain White T’s, They Might be Giants, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, just to name a few. A CD of these songs would be thoroughly enjoyable and should really sell, once it’s recorded and released.
The production is the vision of Steppenwolf’s own Tina Landau, who both conceived and directed this production. She’s truly a talented and visionary artist. Ms. Landeau’s assisted by the brilliant, innovative Tony Award-winning choreographer, Christopher Gattelli, whose work will be soon be seen in Goodman’s upcoming “War Paint.” He’s astonished on Broadway in Disney’s “Newsies,” both “The King and I” and “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center, as well as in many other wonderful productions. The highlight of his many choreographic contributions is Squidward’s effervescent tap production number, “I’m Not a Loser,” that stops the show. Julie McBride conducts a delirious pit orchestra that’s heavy on guitar, bass and percussion, and a live Foley design, that adds so much sparkle, is managed by Mike Dobson, housed high above in the left balcony.
Visually, this production is the very definition of eye-popping. From the moment audiences walk into the Oriental, they’ll feel as if they’ve magically plunged into the depths of a kaleidoscopic undersea world. Tony nominated scenic and costume designer David Zinn has dreamed up a world of color, motion and pure magic. His imaginative sets, properties and wardrobe are created from an array of fabrics and everyday gadgets found at your neighborhood Home Depot. Zinn seems to have actually incorporated the rainbow into his alluring underwater world and its inhabitants. Collaborating with Charles LaPointe’s wig and hair creations, Peter Nigrini’s wondrous moving projections and Kevin Adams’ beautiful tropical palate of illumination, this show is a bountiful feast for both eye and ear.
In the title role, and effortlessly dominating this entire production, is newcomer Ethan Slater. At times this ball of fire is reminiscent of entertainer, Martin Short, particularly as he played Ed Grimley, with his spiked blond hair, his staccato walk and his overall unbridled enthusiasm. Mr. Slater is a talented singer, actor, dancer and, seemingly, capable of anything demanded of him. He’s truly the star of this musical. Broadway and West End favorite Gavin Lee, seen both in New York and in Chicago as Bert in “Mary Poppins,” steals the show as the tapping, multi-legged Squidward Tentacles. Primarily an insecure, Eeyore-like character, he has glimmering moments that recall Louise in “Gypsy,” as he tries to please his mama with his dance number. Nick Blaemire, seen on and off Broadway, as well as in countless tours, is devilishly devious as Sheldon Plankton. Danny Skinner is perfection as Patrick Star, SpongeBob’s bestie, who lacks his friend’s energy and common sense. Sandy Cheeks is well-played by Broadway baby, Lilli Cooper, showcasing a powerful voice that should carry her well beyond Bikini Bottom. The ensemble, cast with a host of young, enthusiastic musical theatre triple threats, keeps the production moving as fast as the Electric Skates, especially Kelvin Moon Loh as the easily rattled news commentator, Perch Perkins.
This gorgeous, happy, optimistic musical is just plain, old-fashioned fun. Filled with vibrant color and sound and overflowing with mind-boggling creativity, the show features a talented cast of triple threats, led by the wonderful Ethan Slater and Gavin Lee. It sports delightful, catchy songs like “Bikini Bottom Day,” “BFF,” “Hero Is My Middle Name,” “Poor Pirates” and the contagious “Best Day Ever.” A family musical, in the vein of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” or “Seussical, the Musical,” this show offers wet and wild entertainment that will give audiences a well-deserved break from all the negativity in today’s world, and help them cool off, if only for three more weeks, during these hot summer nights. All hail the “Super Sea Savior”!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 19-July 10 by Broadway in Chicago at the Ford Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.