Saturday, June 18, 2016

Vibrant, Imaginative Efforts Can’t Make 'The SpongeBob Musical' Must Sea - Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The SpongeBob Musical
a World Premiere
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 10

Although I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, all a good while ago, I’m aware of the abundant charms of Nickelodeon’s rabidly popular animated series SpongeBob SquarePants.

My best friend had quite an affinity for the show—at least during its initial three seasons; he’s largely soured on its quality since—and thus acquainted me with the endlessly upbeat title character who “lives in a pineapple under the sea” along with an array of anthropomorphized creatures.

So while I arrived at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night somewhat dubious about how an animated TV series might be translated to a stage musical—featuring original songs by a variety of pop acts—my mindset was, as Spongebob might say, “I’m ready!” to be entirely enchanted. 

Especially as my subscription mates were the night before (I had to postpone due to car troubles). And because The Lion King musical certain proved that animation could be theatrically re-imagined rather brilliantly.

But entirely enchanted I wasn’t.

Which isn't to suggest the show failed to bring a smile to my lips, as even before it began the vibrancy of the sets spreading far beyond the Oriental's stage bespoke considerable imagination and ebullience.

Directed somewhat unexpectedly by longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, Tina Landau, under the auspices of Nickelodeon, the production has opted not to put its SpongeBob, Patrick Star, Squidward, Plankton and others in full body costumes, but rather interpretive get-ups that allow their faces to be seen.

As this is an attempt to be legitimate Broadway-bound entertainment, rather than just a brazen attempt to cash in on the kiddies, it makes sense that we can see the performers' faces and bodies.

Yet while Ethan Slater as SpongeBob tackles this challenge about as well as one could imagine--and Gavin Lee, who was great as Bert in Mary Poppins, is super here as Squidward, complete with an extra set of legs--nothing here tickled me as much as simply seeing an effervescent animated sponge in a pair of short pants.

In other words, the musical loses something for not having SpongeBob truly look like SpongeBob.

And though there really is some terrific costuming, wonderful scenery--including two ingenious "pinball" type chutes to left and right of the stage--inspired performances (including by Danny Skinner as Patrick, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks and Nick Blaemire as Sheldon Plankton), some fine songs and an apocalyptic volcano threatening to destroy Bikini Bottom storyline that feels akin to an episode, I can't say that watching the musical felt better than catching an inventive 30 minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants on TV.

Contrary to my fears, The SpongeBob Musical never felt tawdry, tacky or crass; the effort in shaping the material is clear, and although the stylistic variances of songs by various artists doesn't abet overall cohesion, I can't say it ruined the show.

The opening song, "Bikini Bottom Day" by a songwriter named Jonathan Coulton comes off well, and there is something inherently compelling about hearing "No Control," written by David Bowie and Brian Eno--and easily imagining it being sung by Bowie.

"Hero is My Middle Name" further proves the showtune composition chops of Cyndi Lauper, who won a Tony Award for writing the music & lyrics for Kinky Boots, and Gavin Lee heads the show's best production number as Squidward leads a tap dancing crew on "I'm Not a Loser," written by They Might Be Giants.

Christopher Gattelli is the show's choreographer, and like Scenic & Costume Designer David Zinn, deserves considerable credit for making The SpongeBob Musical as good as it is.

But while it is fairly entertaining, and occasionally delightful, it is not a great musical. That it's nowhere near as good as The Sound of Music, which was playing just down Randolph Street at the Cadillac Palace, is probably a petty criticism as few shows can compare, but also within the previous 8 days, I found a local production of Bat Boy: The Musical far more pleasing, substantive and cohesive.

I realize that nobody going to see The SpongeBob Musical will be expecting West Side Story, and there's no reason both can't exist.

I also never mean for even my lukewarm reviews to dissuade those so inclined from attending a show, and in addition to two friends liking it far more than I, a standing ovation on Wednesday night also seems to offer a considerably higher opinion.

Of course, the balcony was half-empty, so perhaps the SpongeBob franchise isn't beguiling the theater crowd as much as was hoped. And that the show neither rivals any first-rate musical--including, by a great distance, The Lion King--nor equals the animated series on which it is based, would seem to suggest that, despite some nice efforts, this world premiere musical just isn't sponge worthy.

No comments: