Life Smells Weird: “SpongeBob the Musical”

National Tour Cast of The Spongebob Musical. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Presented by the Boch Center Wange Theatre
Based on the series SpongeBob Squarepants by Stephen Hillenburg
Book by Kyle Jarrow
Music by Tom Kitt
Original songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani, Lil’ C, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Andy Paley, Tom Kenny, Derek Drymon, Mark Harrison, Stephen Hillenburg, Blaise Smith & Tom Kitt
Additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton
Production conceived and directed by Tina Landau
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Music direction by Patrick Hoagland
Music supervision by Julie McBride & Timothy Hanson

October 15 – 27, 2019
Boch Center Wang Theatre
Boston, MA
SpongeBob and Wang Theatre on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA)

A SpongeBob Squarepants internet primer: 

  • SpongeBob is a cartoon featured on the Nickelodeon TV network. 
  • SpongeBob Squarepants has a devoted YouTube channel with helpful playlists.
  • Encyclopedia SpongeBobia has a series timeline and community forum for fans.
  • SpongeBob Squarepants has spawned many dank memes. A “dank meme” is colloquial phrase that describes viral internet media of outdated comedic value.  

(Boston, MAThe SpongeBob Musical currently playing at the Wang Theatre is great fun. Tina Landau’s production engages the audience with colorful design and choreography. Tom Kitt’s upbeat, pop score is catchy but thoughtful. It’s a heartening musical comedy that teaches important lessons about friendship, generosity and civic duty. 

In SpongeBob the Musical, title character SpongeBob Squarepants (Lorenzo Pugliese) is a perky fry cook with strong morals and a love for adventure. He and his friends Patrick Star (Beau Bradshaw) are waking up to a beautiful new day in their home of Bikini Bottom when they feel a rumbling in the sand. A live volcano is threatening their home! 

With the help of Sandy Cheeks the squirrel (Daria Pilar Redus), SpongeBob and Patrick devise a way of stopping the volcano with an invention Sandy will build. They introduce their plan to Bikini Bottom but the townspeople turn on them. They blame Sandy for the volcanic eruption because she’s an immigrant. Now that their lives are in danger, immigrants scare them. 

SpongeBob the Musical’s subplots are numerous. Patrick becomes the accidental, mumbling prophet for a cult of modern dancing sardines in bright smocks. Patrick likes the affirming attention from the sardines but doesn’t like the emotional labor resultant from being a prophet for a pack of needy herring. 

Squidward Q. Tentacles (Cody Cooley) and Pearl Krabs (Meami Maszewski) plan a fundraising concert to enable the citizens to escape the imminent volcanic eruption. Even though his one man show is rejected by the concert committee, Squidward performs the tap dance solo of his dreams anyway. When Squidward and Pearl successfully reach their monetary goal, Pearl receives the validation from her father Mr. Krabs (Zach Kononov) that she’s worked for her whole life.

Daria Pilar Redus and Lorenzo Pugliese. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Meanwhile, villains Sheldon Plankton (Tristan McIntyre) and Karen the Computer (Caitlin Ort) hatch a plot to hypnotise the township into believing their restaurant, The Chum Bucket, is the best in Bikini Bottom. It becomes abundantly clear to SpongeBob, Sandy, and their knowing audience that it is up to them to save the denizens of Bikini Bottom. They do.

SpongeBob and the rest of the gang has been a part of the cartoon zeitgeist for twenty eight years now. Since it hit the air in 1991, SpongeBob has spawned 12 seasons, two movies (with another slated for 2020), and a Burger King commercial in 2009 with the lyrics, “I like square butts and I cannot lie.” It has been translated into a multitude of languages including Arabic and Kurdish. 

Anyone who isn’t at least peripherally aware of the TV show will struggle to acclimate to the stage production. SpongeBob introduces its characters and subplots at a fast clip. The musical skips over its worldbuilding, directly into its storytelling because it assumes the audience is already acquainted with it.

Cody Cooley and the cast. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

SpongeBob the Musical boasts a strong list of songwriters in its credits. SpongeBob composer Tom Kitt said in a 2017 Rolling Stone article, “As all of these layers of musical theater were being applied, it was important to make sure that the artists’ voices were front and center.” The score succeeds in incorporating both the SpongeBob ethos and the unique talents of the artists.

Panic! at the Disco wrote “(Just A) Simple Sponge” specifically for the production. It’s a power ballad sung by SpongeBob in which he lists his many qualifications for managing the Krusty Krab. The song’s phrasing and language are both directly out of the Panic! at the Disco catalogue.  Actor Pugliese, who sings SpongeBob with a voice affectation like the TV character, performs it with a healthy belt and a lot of heart.

“Chop to the Top” by Lady Antebellum was written for the role of Sandy Cheeks. It’s a ditty with a banjo hook that Sandy sings to motivate SpongeBob to the top of the volcano. It’s the only country song in the show. Redus performed high kicks in platform boots she sang “Come on and chop!” Her vocals were velvety; her diction reached all the way to the back of the room. “Chop to the Top” sounds nothing like Lady Antebellum’s most famous song “Need You Now.”

David Bowie and Brian Eno contributed the song “No Control” from their album, 1. Outside. In the musical’s staging, the denizens of Bikini Bottom sing about their volcano-related fears. A newscaster sings about the impending eruption while SpongeBob asks the citizens to keep calm. They do not. “No Control” is one of Bowie’s last musical collaborations before his tragic death to cancer in January 2016.

A song by Bowie is a natural fit for this musical. Bowie is credited in the 2007 SpongeBob Squarepants episode “Atlantis SquarePantis,” as voicing Lord Royal Highness, the emperor of the Atlanteans of Atlantis. It was a special 45-minute episode in which Lord Royal Highness said,”Art is what happens when you learn to dream.”

A theatre professor-friend of mine teaches what she calls the “Parking Lot Rule” to her first level theatre students at New York State college. She says, if they are reviewing a production, her students should wait until they are in the parking lot to discuss their thoughts on the performance they just watched. It’s a good rule to live by. The consequences of not heeding the rule can be harsh: cruel words travel faster than kind words and words travel fast. You don’t know who is listening. 

My experiences at the Wednesday, October 16 performance of The SpongeBob the Musical tells me that Boston’s critics could learn a thing or two about the “Parking Lot Rule.” During the production’s one 15-minute intermission, I witnessed an unsettling conversation between two critics about the show: they didn’t get it. They didn’t know what SpongeBob was. They hadn’t properly researched SpongeBob Squarepants before attending the performance. 

It is unacceptable for a critic to discuss a show during a show unless it’s to solve a quick personal problem (once a very pregnant friend of mine needed to change seats because she was afraid of going into labor. It was that kind of show) or to express vague but complementary enthusiasm. We are journalists. It is unprofessional to voice personal negligence in a public space.

Anyone could have overheard this press night public conversation in the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre. The “Parking Lot Rule” ensures that a professional standard is met. Arts journalists are recognizable to more than just our small community. Discussing the job while on the job can disrupt the enjoyment of everyone in attendance. Attendees of SpongeBob the Musical will need their full attention to absorb the many facets of the show’s celebration of a little town under the sea.

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