Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Elf the Musical
The SpongeBob Musical story, after introducing the primary characters and the Bikini Bottom setting, follows the titular character's attempt to save the town from an impending volcanic eruption with the help of his friends. The book for the musical is by Kyle Jarrow. There are many nods to the cartoon series, and the off-the-wall silliness of the source is present here as well. Several very timely subplots are included that address current social issues, such as the treatment of immigrants (land mammal Sandy in this case) and environmental protections, but not in a heavy-handed manner. However, the plot is very basic, and those not familiar with the cartoon series may be confused and certainly not get as much out of the show.
The score was created in a very interesting and unique way. Various writers were each given a scene to musicalize, and the resulting score includes songs written by David Bowie, They Might Be Giants, Lady Antebellum, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, and others. Though there are some very strong numbers, other songs are merely serviceable. Too many songs fail to advance the plot in their lyrics. The best are the extremely catchy opening number "Bikini Bottom Day" by Jonathan Coulton, "(Just A) Simple Sponge" by Panic! At the Disco, and "(I Guess I) Miss You" by John Legend. Also incorporated into the show are "Best Day Ever" and the "The SpongeBob Theme Song" from the TV show. Kudos to Tom Kitt for his musical arrangements and orchestrations, which assist in making the score sound cohesive.
The primary strength of this show is the direction of Tina Landau, who also conceived the musical. Ms. Landau is known for out-of-the-box ideas and approaches to material, and that comes in very handy with SpongeBob. Her creativity results in many fun and inventive stage pictures, props (the accordion couch is wonderful), and blocking. There is ample use of the aisles to extend the performance space, and there is general ingenuity all around, visually. She also plays with perspective and size humorously, including with the homes of the primary characters. The positive, goofy yet subversive tone of the cartoon is smartly maintained in the stage version. The choreography by Christopher Gattelli is apt and includes a wildly humorous tap dance extravaganza for Squidward and the cast. Patrick Hoagland leads a band of eleven musicians.
This non-Equity tour includes many talented performers, though they collectively lack the sparkle of the original Broadway cast. Lorenzo Pugliese endearingly conveys the utterly optimistic attitude of SpongeBob, is a skilled vocalist, and displays impressive physical strength. As Patrick Star, Beau Bradshaw sings beautifully and captures the buffoonish nature of the character well. Daria Pilar Redus is appropriately plucky and spunky as Sandy Cheeks, and Cody Cooley embodies the pessimism of Squidward with great skill. The entire cast bring welcome energy and talent to their roles as well.
The set and costume designs by David Zinn follow through on director Landau's vision, with inventive creations everywhere one looks. He has conjured up an underwater playground of whimsical props, with many everyday objects standing in quite effectively for other objects (ladders and boxes are the sides of the volcano, for example). Projections by Peter Nigrini are seamlessly integrated into Zinn's scenic design. The costumes inventively reflect both the cartoon characters and their aquatic creature personas, while leaving enough of each actor visible so the acting comes through clearly. There are very few musicals in recent years that have gotten so much fun out of one costume as SpongeBob does with Squidward's multi-legged outfit. The lighting by Kevin Adams incorporates lots of neon and a variety of other effects.
The SpongeBob Musical could have a better score and more intriguing story, but it does showcase superb and ingenious direction and design. This touring production also boasts a fine cast, and those familiar with the cartoon are likely to enjoy the show.
The SpongeBob Musical runs through November 24, 2019, at the Schuster Center, 1 West Second Street, Dayton OH. For tickets and information, call 937-228-3630 or visit victoriatheatre.com. For more information on the tour, visit theSpongeBobmusical.com