Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
The SpongeBob Musical
Also see Eddie's recent review of The Producers
Thus, with some trepidation but also curiosity, I ventured into the packed, highly hyped-up, and majority kids-and-teens audience at Lucie Stern Theater to become fully surrounded and somewhat amused by the pumped-up, hormone-raging energy and enthusiasm of a youthful cast of twenty-three as they presented The SpongeBob Musical. In the end, I left no more a fan of SpongeBob than I was before, but I remaining a firm admirer of Palo Alto Players for the eclectic array of musicals the company continues to produce year after year and particularly, in this case, for introducing a new generation of the younger set to the might and magic of musical theatre.
For those readers like me who may not be familiar with SpongeBob, I offer a quick primer. SpongeBob SquarePants is a yellow, square-headed sponge who lives in an underwater kingdom called Bikini Bottom. The township's citizens are all sorts of sea creatures, including SpongeBob's best friend Patrick Star (as in starfish), his neighbor Squidward Q. Tentacles, Mr. Krabs his boss at the Krusty Krabs Restaurant, and Pearl Krabs, the blue whale daughter of Krabs. Another friend of SpongeBob is a squirrel named Sandy Cheeks, who exists underwater in a diving suit. A scheming, slimy plankton named Sheldon and his computer wife, Karen–yep, a mixed marriage for twenty years between a single-cell organism and a PC–run a not-so-successful Chum Bucket dive that those in the Bottom world avoid like the plague.
In the musical's opening "Bikini Bottom Day," all of these and others like Mrs. Puff(fish), Perch Perkins, and Larry the Lobster are each introduced in a rambunctious, romping number written by Jonathan Coulton–just one of more than fifteen different songwriters ranging from Cyndi Lauper and Sara Bareilles to David Bowie and Yolanda Adams. (The full list of the original song creators is listed at the end of this review.) With other creators including The Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants, and Panic! At the Disco, the music is a hodgepodge of rock, pop, hip-hop, country, gospel, Sesame Street, and everything in between.
The accompanying choreography designed by Stacey Reed to match such a wide range of beats and rhythms varies from the opening number's cheerleader-like jumps and air-pumping arms to hip-hop's fast footwork, freezes, and power moves. Full stage stomping or high kick stepping give way later to feathery fish all tap-dancing.
Needless to say, the pace is often near frenetic; the energy level is usually bubbling vigorously; and there is tongue-fully-in-cheek intentions on full display during every second of the two hours, twenty minutes (with one intermission).
Into this blissful community of sponges, sardines, and an underwater snail named Gary (SpongeBob's pet who meows), the news arrives that doomsday is only a day away with a nearby volcano (Mount Humongous) about to erupt and wreak the havoc of lava and boulders over the entire town. Panic (meaning lots of running and screaming) sets in (and returns often), but the science-minded squirrel, Sandy Cheeks, has a plan to create am Erupter Interrupter to insert into the volcano's crater and turn its lava into harmless bubbles.
SpongeBob and Patrick are ready to help scale the treacherous mountain with Sandy, but the evil plankton-computer duo of Sheldon and Karen have other nefarious ideas of how to use this opportunity to take over Bikini Bottom and win everyone over to their unpopular, ill-tasting chum.
With a nod to current issues of our world, the two convince the Bikini-ites that a foreigner such as the land mammal Sandy Cheeks, who is spouting a bunch of science crap ("Who believes in science anyway?"), cannot be trusted, setting up a group of marching, sign-carrying, angry citizens calling for the squirrel's expulsion. The musical is now set for a fight until the end–literally as a doomsday clock ticks away–between ever-plotting villains and unlikely heroes with a population of jellies, fishes, and crustaceans in the middle, easily duped and heading to their demise like lemmings stumbling toward the cliff.
Resembling a mixture of Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and one of the lollipop Munchkin kids from The Wizard of Oz, Joe Galang zings with charisma, character, and charm as SpongeBob SquarePants. His diminutive size belies the giant presence he commands on stage, with a personality that pops with energy, emotion, and excitement for his life in Bikini Bottom. Where he falls short is in delivery of SpongeBob's songs, with his pleasant, rather youthful vocals sometimes being too softly sung either as a solo or in duet with others whose more powerful voices overpower his. (On the night I attended, I think that this could also have been a miking issue where his volume was not turned up enough since in the second half of Act Two, suddenly his voice was somewhat stronger and surer.)
As SpongeBob's best pal Patrick Star, Rocky James Concepcion combines sizable presence bodily and personality-wise to be the perfect partner with his smaller-physique pal, with the ability to catch the flipping, jumping, flying SpongeBob in his arms. Concepcion sings with aplomb and flair and can blast a song-ending, sustained note quite impressively, as witnessed in a gospel, go-to-church number ("Super Sea-Star Savior") as he is surrounded by a stage-full of evangelical-pumped-up, pink-from-head-to-toe sardines.
With seemingly countless costume changes among an ensemble who swim on and off stage as cartoonish species of sea folk dressed in an fantastical array of colors, feathers, glitter, and materials of every sort, Raissa Marchetti-Kozlov is the monarch of the underwater world as costume and hair/make-up designer. Perhaps her most memorable creation is the four-legged (two feet in each of two, opposite directions) Squidward, whose every step and move is another reason to laugh aloud. When Andrew Cope, as Squidward, is joined by a dozen, dancing fish floating in feathers and glitz, they produce the night's best number ("I'm Not a Loser") as toes furiously tap while hands rhythmically clap, with Squidward's four legs performing a number that is worth the price of the ticket to see.
Most impressive vocally while also scoring big in playing a brainy, brave squirrel with a lot of hutzpah is Solona Husband as Sandy Cheeks. Her Sandy talks with a Texas drawl but sings with a melodic voice that shines above all others in quality and maturity of sound.
Many other characters are clearly beloved by the cheering fans who welcome their appearances with chants and claps. As the evil Sheldon Plankton, Nico Jaochico slithers about with a seductive magnetism while computer wife Karen (Kristy Aquino) moves in a robotic fashion but also with sexy responses to her husband's come-ons. Zachary Vaughn-Munck is the big-clawed Mr. Krabs full of bombastic bellows about his love of cash above all else–almost including his blue-haired, mall-shopping whale of a daughter, Pearl (Gillian Ortega). A deep-voiced, doom-predicting TV announcer in a sparkling striped suit (Andrew Mo as Perch Perkins) and a delightfully entertaining pirate who steals the stage for his line-up of dancing, singing buccaneers (Dane Lentz as Patchy) are just two more of a host of other examples of creatures that creep and crawl, float and flit across the watery world (with lighting effects by Edward Hunter providing the dappling, shimmering sense of the ocean depths).
Director Patrick Klein truly has found his inner child as he directs the schools of fish coming and going from all directions and with all types of entrances and exits. The slew of scenes is often like watching a live Saturday-morning cartoon. Particularly impressive is Patrick Klein's combined artistry as both director and scenic designer to create the climatic, volcano-climbing scenes when SpongeBob and Sandy Cheeks climb, slip, and tunnel over, around, and through three constantly rotating stacks of crates representing the mountain's steep boulders–a mountain as seen in full on the large projection screen across the back of stage.
At times, the screaming, running, collisions, exaggerated moves, and just plain ol' chaos gets to be a bit much, but then I am decades older than all those kids that seemed to thrive and thrill through it all. And maybe they did not notice as much as I how the high enthusiasm of some performers too often led to their voices singing in near scream, precariously close to going flat as their sung volumes rose.
Bottom line, anyone of any age who is a fan of big-hearted, good-spirited SpongeBob SquarePants and all his many strange and silly buddies should have a blast at Palo Alto Players' cartoonish extravaganza, The SpongeBob Musical. For everyone else, be ready for a Saturday morning explosion of a world of kids' TV fun and fury that may or may not be your cup of tea but just might tempt you to turn on next week's episode to see what the fanatic frenzy is all about.
The SpongeBob Musical runs through May 14, 2023, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.
Please note: This production is recommended for ages 5 and up.
The SpongeBob Musical original songs are by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Shape & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady A, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain Whites T's, They Might Be Giants, T.I., David Bowie, Tom Kenny, and Andy Paley. Additional lyrics are by Jonathan Coulton with additional music by Tom Kitt.