Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The SpongeBob MusicalLyric Arts Main Street Stage
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Glensheen

Berto Borroto and Justin Michael
Photo by Molly Weibel
There is a blissful, rambunctious, tuneful party going on at the Lyrics Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka and, for the price of a ticket, you are invited. The occasion is The SpongeBob Musical. SpongeBob SquarePants, the star of Nickelodeon TV's long-running animated show, and his many friends have taken over the stage singing a delightful original (mostly) song set, dancing to great choreography, and telling a story about impending doomsday. No need to fret about that last point. Given the show's abundant cheerfulness, I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you that doomsday is averted. How could it not be, when you walk into a theater with faux jellyfish hanging from the ceiling, raffia wrapped around the proscenium, a pirate who claims to be SpongeBob's number one fan perched on stage to make a "pirate" video of the show, and, as he is ushered out by "security guards," rallies the audience to join him in a chant of "Yo, ho, we won't go!" Then the show "begins," with the recorded voice of a French-accented narrator, another piece of glorious whimsy.

The "SpongeBob SquarePants" television series first aired on Nickelodeon in 1999. It was created by Stephen Hillenburg, a marine scientist and animator (a combination you don't come across every day) who wanted to help children learn about the many forms of aquatic life. Indeed, the show's characters includes a sea sponge, a lobster, an octopus, a crab, a starfish, a whale, even a bit of plankton, among many others, all anthropomorphized with human personalities and feelings. The series has been a huge hit with its intended audience of children, but also with adults who enjoy its wholesome but very funny humor, its effervescent imagination, and its consistent emphasis on positivity, something that often seems to be in short supply.

Given the show's great success, not only on television but in the marketplace–it was reported in 2019 to have generated over $13 billion in merchandising revenue–I was a bit skeptical when I learned that SpongeBob was being made into a Broadway musical, suspecting an artless attempt to rake more bucks off the popular title. The musical, then titled SpongeBob SquarePants, opened on Broadway in December, 2017, surprising me and a great many other skeptics when it was greeted with critical praise. It went on to receive twelve Tony Award nominations, tied for the most of any show that season, winning for its scenic design. The show did win the Outstanding Musical award from the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.

The SpongeBob Musical was conceived by Tina Landau, who directed its pre-Broadway and Broadway productions. Landau no doubt set the show's breezy tone, which adheres to a coherent narrative without ever taking itself too seriously. The book, by Kyle Jarrow, makes the most of the idiosyncratic aspects of its characters and its fanciful ocean-floor setting, Bikini Bottom. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud lines, but nothing to be leery of having your five-year-old hear. If you are not familiar with the characters, you needn't worry. I walked in fairly ignorant of the SpongeBob universe, but Jarrow's book provides enough context that I had no trouble following the story or getting the jokes.

A unique feature of the show, now renamed The SpongeBob Musical, is that while all but two of the songs are originals, rather than being the output of one composer or a composer/lyricist team, they were written by an assemblage of popular musicians. The songwriters include Sara Bareilles, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and a half dozen more–a starry and diverse line up. The two songs not written specifically for the musical are "No Control," written and recorded by David Bowie in 1995, and "Best Day Ever," by Tom Kenny and Andy Paley, which had played on the television show. This makes for a variety of musical styles, but the artists wrote their songs for specific characters and points in the narrative, so they work quite nicely to propel the show along. The stylistic variety likely wouldn't work in most musicals, but here it contributes to the festive atmosphere and open-hearted inclusive spirit which announces from start to finish that all are welcome.

The production on view at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage is the best thing I have ever seen at that theater, which consistently does fine work. The SpongeBob Musical is much more than fine, it is wonderful. Director Matt McNabb keeps all of the show's moving parts afloat and projects the affection everyone involved feels for these characters. The terrific choreography is by Michael Terrell Brown, and the talented cast deliver it with flash. The topper is a terrific tap-dance number choreographed by Hannah Weinberg-Goerger for Squidward, the uptight octopus finally breaking loose in "I'm Not a Loser," written by They Might Be Giants. That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

McNabb has assembled a fabulous cast, starting with Berto Borroto, who is phenomenal as SpongeBob, singing, dancing, speaking, and moving exactly as a dream SpongeBob would do. Justin Michael is wonderful as SpongeBob's best friend, a starfish named Patrick, fully embracing Patrick's dim-witted but loving and loyal persona. The two cement their friendship in the delightful "BFF," by the Plain White T's. Noah Hynick could not be better as Squidward, the tap-dancing and clarinet playing octopus, disagreeably lovable throughout. Taelyn Gore delivers spunk and sincerity as Sandy, a marine scientist who happens to be a squirrel, endowed with an air supply so she can live in the underwater world.

Then there is Mr. Krebs, a money-grubbing crab who owns the Krusty Krab restaurant, played with gleeful avarice by Bill Stevens. Kalyn Schmit brings brio and a strong voice to Pearl, Mr. Krebs' daughter (who, as it turns out, is a whale). Pearl dreams of being a rock and roll singer, and Schmit's clarion voice makes that wish seem attainable. Cam Pederson hilariously issues nonstop ticks and poses as Plankton, who operates the Chum Bucket and will stop at nothing to destroy its competitor, the Krusty Krab. Brandon Osero has the audience in the palm of his hand as Patchy the troublesome pirate, and is a hoot as breaking-news reporter Perch Perkins. Samantha Raun, as the mayor of Bikini Bottom, craftily conveys the feckless assurances of ineffective government. The rest of the cast and ensemble are all swell, everyone pitching in with all their hearts to make The SpongeBob Musical sing with joy.

The inventive scenery by Sadie Ward establishes the sandy neighborhood at the bottom of the sea, as a menacing volcano rises above Bikini Bottom. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes ingeniously convey each character's species and temperament. The staging requires an inordinate number of props, which Cory Skold has designed with finesse. Shannon Elliott's lighting design ably draws focus from scene to scene as the narrative shifts between characters. Paul Estby's sound design provides all of the ambient sounds to go with the setting. On opening night, though, a few of the actors' voices came across as muffled, making it a bit hard to make out their lines–though the context always provides ample explanation of what is going on. Hopefully this has since been corrected. Music director Sean Barker has assembled a dozen musicians who bring the score to vibrant life.

It is such a delight to walk into a show with mild expectations and be blown away by it. I hope to have the opportunity to see this show again during this run, something I rarely do, but I want another chance to experience the rush of its joy and the timbre of its melodies–and be wowed by a raft of talented performers working their hearts out and loving every minute of it, in a room with cheery jelly fish hanging overhead. This fantastic production deserves to be a whale of a hit.

The SpongeBob Musical runs through August 13, 2023, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $37 - $45; Unsold seats, if any, are available as rush tickets for $20 starting 30 minutes before curtain time, in person only. For information and tickets, please call 763-422-1838 or visit

Book: Kyle Jarrow, based on the series by Stephen Hillenburg; Musical Production Conceived by: Tina Landau; Original Songs: Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco; Plain White T's, They Might Be Giants, T.I., and songs by David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley; Additional Lyrics: Jonathan Coulton; Additional Music: Tom Kit; Director: Matt McNabb; Music Director: Sean Barker; Choreographer: Michael Terrell Brown; Tap Choreographer: Hannah Weinberg-Goerger; Scenic Design: Sadie Ward; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Shannon Elliot; Sound Design: Paul Estby; Props Design: Cory Skold; Intimacy Coordinator: Callie Aho; Stage Manager: Dallas Williams; Assistant Stage Managers: Emily Carey, Will Exline, Ajah Williams.

Cast: Berto Borroto (SpongeBob), Aaron Dumalag (ensemble), Steve Eckes (Foley Fish), Nadia Franzen (ensemble), Thomas Friebe (ensemble), Taelyn Gore (Sandy), Emily Hensley (ensemble), Noah Hynick (Squidward), Carly Joseph (swing), (Morgan Kempton (ensemble), Waverly Ann McCollum (Karen the Computer), Justin Michael (Patrick), Brandon Osero (Patchy/Perch Perkins), Cam Pederson (Plankton), Kate Piering (ensemble), Samantha Raun (Mayor), Marley Ritchie (Larry the Lobster), Kalyn Schmit (Pearl), Kelly Solberg (ensemble), Bill Stevens (Mr. Krabs), Alex Stokes (ensemble), Jack Strub (Old Man Jenkins/ensemble), Kyle Szarzynski (ensemble).