(aka SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical)
Touring Company Performance at the Von Braun Center, Huntsville, AL – 1 Nov 2019
I have never seen an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. I’m sure many of you are gasping at your screen and calling for an oxygen mask. But hey, there’s a lot to watch these days. Anyway. When I heard that there was an impending Broadway musical based on the cartoon, I was not surprised. The Law of Relative Development was long ago updated to include the fact that everything will one day be a musical, in addition to being a movie, a TV series, a breakfast cereal (and so on and so on). And it’s become clear that not everything is going to be a Lion King and transition to the stage in spectacular fashion.
That all being said, this show didn’t have my attention until I saw the Tony Awards performance of Squidward’s song “I’m Not a Loser” — and the four-legged tap dance within — that I thought: Hmm. Perhaps might not suck. Then finding out that the song was penned by They Might Be Giants, and that other songs were being handled by the likes of Jonathan Coulton, Cyndi Lauper, and The Flaming Lips…and I thought, surely this must be worth seeing.
Having missed it on Broadway, I did catch the touring version and the good news is: yes, it’s absolutely worth seeing. The feeling out in the world (i.e. the reason I heard from other people that they did not catch the show) is that it’s a show just for kids. But it’s a show just for kids like Looney Tunes are just for kids. Looney Tunes are great when you’re a kid. But go back and watch them when you’re an adult and you realize there’s scads of stuff that flew right over your head when you were younger. (If you haven’t tried this, I recommend it.) That’s this show. And knowing that the world of SpongeBob contains a kung fu squirrel from Texas in a diving suit, an evil plankton married to a computer, and the potential for cults led by starfish…I will have to check out the original animated show at some point. It sounds like it was created by people that take the same meds I do.
Knowledge of the cartoon is not necessary to see this. The only two things I had trouble catching I’ve already mentioned. It took me a minute to realize the character of Sandy was supposed a squirrel and I didn’t realize the character of Karen was actually a computer (despite her dragging one around with her) until near the end of the show. It is quite possible this was handled clearly in lyrics or dialogue, but the venue I saw it in is not known for its generous acoustics. And my sense of hearing hasn’t been generous for years. Couple that with me not expecting to encounter such land-based entities underwater, and I suppose it makes sense. None of this affected my enjoyment.
A jukebox musical is where you get a wisp of a plot and use it to tie together a bunch of songs so you can put it on stage with more than people just standing and singing. See Anything Goes and Five Guys Named Moe for examples. This is almost a jukebox musical, in that the plot (of an underwater volcano about to destroy everyone’s hometown) is almost not necessary. You could hang these songs and characters on almost any plot and it would probably work just as well. That being said, the plot is necessary to allow the staging of boulders in a range of sizes to assault the cast to hilarious effect. It’s also needed to subversively put across ideas such as: don’t discriminate, don’t trust the government, and stand by your friends. Granted, those are lessons the adults in the audience need more than their kids. So.
And the really weird thing about the songs is this: despite being created by a range of different musicians, they all sounded like part of a cohesive whole. I know that’s what you expect from a musical, but I don’t know how specific were the parameters the composers were given. The only exception to this was “No Control,” but that could be just because I recognized it as an existing Bowie/Eno song, so it showed up with its own baggage. But yes, the songs were pretty fantastic.
The cast was all excellent, especially since they were keeping up an energy level that at my advanced age I found daunting (and occasionally appalling, he said, shaking his walker) and putting across that they were not people, but instead whatever animal they were supposed to be representing. Oddly, the two this should have been hardest for were Tristan McIntyre as Sheldon (plankton) and Méami Maszewski as Pearl (whale). These two characters were, respectively, supposed to be much smaller and bigger than their human players. And…I didn’t give a damn because they were both hilarious plus Maszewski can positively wail when given opportunity. So.
I would like to also give special notice to Lorenzo Pugliese, who had to pile so much positive energy into being SpongeBob that I envision him smoking and cursing after each show, just to find balance within himself once again. Maybe looking up pictures of puppies on the internet and calling them names. Seriously. The guy was having to be that positive. Cody Cooley as Squidward was pretty damn excellent, not just because of the quad-tap number but being consistently the ocean’s answer to Eeyore throughout the show. I’d also like to mention the “Foley Fish,” Ryan Blihovde, who provided myriad sound effects from a perch (no pun intended) on the stage. There’s a second foley artist credited in the program…were they in cahoots or did Bilhovde do all of that himself? If he did, he will probably be visited by Nick Fury soon. Or an exorcist. (Brief note: the orchestra hung out on stage playing music before the show began…this was great. I would buy an entire album of just that madness. Three-part kazoo harmony? Yes, please.) These are just a few of the people — the show does a good job of giving everyone a chance to be completely ludicrous.
If you can see it, make sure you do. If you feel like you need to take a kid to be able to see it, I’m sure you know someone who will loan you a child long enough to enjoy the show. However you need to do it, do it. Musical theatre that exhibits this sort of sophisticated, sick and twisted glory should be celebrated.