Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of The Children
I will confess to having seen a total of perhaps 90 seconds of the Nickelodeon series "SpongeBob SquarePants," but if it's anything close to as subversive (and entertaining) as The SpongeBob Musical, whose touring production is currently playing in a very limited run at the Golden Gate Theatre, I'd say the adults in the room will appreciate it just as much as, if not more than, the youngsters who filled many of the seats on opening night.
If, like me, you know next to nothing about SpongeBob SquarePants, here are the basics: SpongeBob is a relentlessly cheerful and optimistic sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, in a submerged burg called Bikini Bottom. His best friend Patrick Star, a rather dim (and self-deluded) sea star, occupies a nearby rock. Their neighbor, Squidward Q. Tentacles, is an octopus with a very sour disposition. "The world is a horrible place," Squidward tells SpongeBob, "filled with fear, suffering and despair." "Yes," SpongeBob replies, "But it's our horrible place." Both SpongeBob and Squidward work for the greedy Mr. Krabs at the Krusty Krab, a successful fast-food joint famed for its Krabby Patties. The evil Sheldon J. Plankton, who is, yes, a plankton, runs the decidedly unsuccessful Chum Bucket restaurant and is constantly hatching plots to steal the Krabby Patty recipe or otherwise disrupt life in Bikini Bottom.
If you're concerned about how a single-celled organism can run a restaurant, plot evil, or speak, read no further, for The SpongeBob Musical exists in its own weird world that will challenge your rational mind at every step. But if you can handle absurdity in the service of satire and socio-political commentarythat the kids will still love even if they miss all the best bitsthen this is your kind of show.
It begins (save for a prologue in which SpongeBob's biggest fan, Patchy the Pirate, attempts to crash the proceedings) with the titular sponge awakening in his pineapple to another "Bikini Bottom Day," which includes some rather punchy dance moves from choreographer Christopher Gatelli and his associate Lou Castro. As SpongeBob, Lorenzo Pugliese pops and locks, shimmies and sways, often in perfect synchronization. Sound effects are created on stage by Foley Fish (as he is listed in the program) Ryan Blihovde, with a colorful contraption that produces a wide range of bangs, whistles, toots, and other assorted sounds.
But the day turns out to be far less than ordinary, when Sandy Cheeks (Daria Pilar Redus), a science-minded squirrel who lives among the sea creatures, discovers that the nearby volcano Mount Humongous is set to blow the very next day, annihilating all of Bikini Bottom. Meanwhile, Sheldon Plankton (Tristan McIntyre) is conspiring with his assistant Karen the Computer (Caitlin Ort) to mass hypnotize the residents of Bikini Bottom in order to convince them that the food at his Chum Bucket is actually delicious. Sandy has a plan to save the town through science, but few pay heed to her warnings because she's an outsider. "You're a land mammal," they shriek, accusatorily, and instead fall for Sheldon's scam to buy a giant escape pod in order to flee their doomed home. With the Mayor (Helen Regula) foolishly buying in to Sheldon's scheme ("Your government has everything under control."), it's up to SpongeBob, Patrick and Sandy (Beau Bradshaw) to save the day.
As the title character, Lorenzo Pugliese is a pint-sized dynamo with a bouncy physicality that shrieks with unbridled cheer. Bradshaw has a delightfully rubber face and makes Patrick's dim nature feel somewhat wise, while Cody Cooley exhibits a baritone that is both delightfully resonant and right in line with Squidward's dour nature.
The music for The SpongeBob Musical was written by an impressive variety of contemporary musicians and bands, including Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman, John Legend, They Might Be Giants, Panic! At the Disco, and others. The creators even included a song ("No Control") from David Bowie and Brian Eno's 1995 concept album, Outside. Despite this hodge-podge of composers, the score hangs together quite nicely, with some lovely, standout songs. "BFF" (by the Plain White T's) is a sweet tribute to the power of friendship, and They Might Be Giants' "I'm Not a Loser" is filled with that duo's signature sincere quirkiness.
The costumes and the staging for this non-Equity tour are kaleidoscopically wondrous, often making use of simple techniques to pull off their effects: an oversized pair of red boxing gloves to stand in for Mr. Krabs' claws; kiddie pools as set elements that double as video screens; a painted bleach bottle as a crown when Patrick is anointed as a messiah by a school of passing sardines.
But it's the satire and cultural commentary that ultimately won me over, especially since much of it is only vaguely obscured by a camouflage of color and sheen of silliness. Still, it's not hard to miss messages of the dangers of ignoring climate change, the threat of xenophobia (as when the Bikini Bottomites shout "Blame the squirrel! Blame the squirrel!" with the same zeal of the "Lock her up!" chants), or the willingness of people (ok, sardines) to canonize a sea star into a savior. SpongeBob isn't going to qualify for membership in Mensa (as one character says, "For a sponge, you don't seem to absorb much."), but his optimistic outlook and loyalty to his friends (and Sandy's science) ultimately win the dayand the audience's hearts.
You have just a few chances to catch The SpongeBob Musical, but it's a fishing expedition where you're sure to land an ocean full of joyno matter what your age.
The SpongeBob Musical runs through February 16, 2020, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, please visit thespongebobmusical.com.