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Broadway, meet SpongeBob
Review by Rob Lester


Masterworks Broadway/ Sony Music

Years drift by, trends and tastes ebb and flow, each new show will come and go, and Broadway—like that mighty "Ol' Man River" in the classic Show Boat—"just keeps rolling along." Rolling your eyes may have been your reaction when word came out that a new Broadway musical would bring us singing, dancing, flesh-and-blood versions of underwater characters from the goofy and brash TV cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants." Surprising, to say the least. But don't be surprised if you feel like rolling out the red carpet to welcome these silly creatures to the above-sea level of the Great White Way. The original Broadway cast recording recently released turns out to be very entertaining. I have a major soft spot for kid-friendly "cute" material when it has an original voice and doesn't pour on the sugar. This one succeeds pretty well and, well, I'm becoming a fan of this wacky world and the quirky characters and humor that is, blessedly, good-natured.

Swim aside, mermaid Ariel and sisters, evil Ursula and company—make room under the sea for a sponge who lives in a pineapple with his pet snail that meows. Ethan Slater is bubbly and bright-voiced as the title character. Diving into the role, he sounds appropriately confident and full of vim (much of the time) or lamenting: "I wish he'd see I'm not just the sponge next door" he cries in "(Just a) Simple Sponge." Slater's work with costar Danny Skinner as Patrick is especially spiffy. The characters' friendship is toasted with glee as they revel in being each other's BFF.

A special shout-out to a couple of women writers involved with this show, whose other work is currently on the boards: I like Cyndi Lauper's contribution here more than anything in Kinky Boots; she wrote the upbeat, encouraging "Hero Is My Middle Name," sung with vigor by irrepressible Slater and Skinner and a strong Lilli Cooper as Cheeky Sands. And Sara Bareilles, whose resume includes Waitress, served up "Poor Pirates," a very funny piece that Jason Michael Snow makes the most of, with sunny singing about the pirate life, relishing every accented "arrrgghh."

For a score written by so many contributors, it hangs together surprisingly well. So, for that, it's no small tip of the hat to a man wearing many hats here: Broadway music veteran Tom Kitt, credited as music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator—and "additional music by." In their liner notes, both he and director/conceiver Tina Landau emphasize that they wanted a score by a range of writers so variety would be a given. (A movie presenting the "SpongeBob SquarePants" TV population had numerous composers and lyricists.) Note that the songwriter names are prominent on the cover, and that the words "Original Cast Recording" are much larger than the name of this musical. And when negotiating "bigger names" or a smaller font size, who gets top billing? The cast members who are the voices we hear? Kitt? The tunesmiths (certainly, many of them having found fame as writers and/or performers)? The answer is ... none of the above. It's Kyle Jarrow, the bookwriter. So, are the writers with high visibility careers more the selling point than Broadway cast members, not household names, performing their material?

Fans of the various singer-songwriters' pop output may find it interesting to guess who wrote what without the handy lyric-filled booklet that comes with the album. We get some silliness and sarcasm in songs that seem to be sticking their tongues out at us. The begrudging admission "(I Guess I) Miss You" allows its pouting and prickliness to peak too early, and the last part if this track (three minutes and forty-odd seconds) is anti-climactic. By the way, this one is written by pop star John Legend, whose name is on the alphabetical list and thus an attraction, but you won't find that name on the list of musical numbers and their writers—because the credits give his real name, John Stephens. Looking at the page, you might have ventured a guess that, instead, John Legend's birth name might be John Flamingo or John Linnell, but those Johns are the men who are known as They Might Be Giants and their loopy "I'm Not a Loser" makes a swell, splashy showcase for the character Squadded Q. Tentacles, played to the hilt by Gavin Lee (Bert in the stage version of Mary Poppins in London and on Broadway).

The number written by Brian Eno and the late David Bowie, "No Control," with its bleakness and worries is the party-pooper at the party populated by merry-makers. But, then again, the plot calls for a piece about the end of the world as they know it, due to the presence of a volcano that is expected to erupt. And you know how a little something like that can ruin your day. This downer was dreamed up back in 1995 when Bowie was inspired by the work of Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht and their strong-medicine musicals.

But it's laughter that erupts here instead of lava. Winks and witty commentary and jokey lines are sprinkled throughout. Even when a melody doesn't have the bounce that it might ideally have, manic cheerfulness is the M.O. in numerous sections, making the hyped-up hullabaloo more Pee Wee Herman than Jerry Herman. A few numbers have the real flair and flavor of old-school Broadway musical comedy. Let others debate the fate of musical theatre in a world where this nutty Nickelodeon cartoon character becomes the anchor of a big musical instead of being relegated to being a big balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. This SpongeBob is perhaps a guilty pleasure and often enough a hoot, and it makes me smile quite a lot.

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