Feel-good ‘SpongeBob Musical’ rumbles, toils and bubbles

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Ethan Slater (center) stars as the title character in “The SpongeBob Musical.” | PHOTO BY

On the very same weekend that “Finding Dory,” the animated fish tale from Disney-Pixar, broke box-office records at movie theaters, the $18 million world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical,” a playful sea saga inspired by the whale-sized Nickelodeon franchise, arrived on the stage of Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, with a slew of familiar animated characters transformed into something approximating flesh-and-blood characters.

Part allegory of the precarious world in which we all now dwell, and part satire on everything from the bureaucratic babble of modern-day politicians, to the hunger for moneymaking, the bloated egos of pop music groups, the rise of messianic leaders and the eternal lure of stardom, the show is full of wildly energetic performers and playful, imaginative stagecraft that might best be described as one part lavish Dollar Store ingenuity, one part Cirque du Soleil and one part childlike invention. And it features a seamless musical mashup of more than a dozen songs by as many composer-lyricists, with zesty pastiche numbers that move from hip-hop, soul, disco and heavy metal to pure Broadway.

It also comes with all the familiar messages that might best be collectively described as “kumbaya at 20,000 leagues under the sea,” summarized as: You are somebody even if everyone around you underrates you (complete with a Cyndi Lauper anthem, “Hero Is My Middle Name”); no mountain is too high to climb if you band together and refuse to accept failure (with the song “Chop to the Top” by Lady Antebellum), and if you are ever going to save the world you had better engage in cooperation because teamwork is the only answer. “When the Going Gets Tough,” a hip-hop number by T.I,. sums it up,  and for a more soulful take there is Yolanda Adams’ “Super Sea Star Saver.”

Of course it’s hard to argue with any of that, but “The SpongeBob Musical” has a sort of grade-school mentality more suitable to really extravagant children’s theater than anything else. To be sure, no one would confuse it with “Moby Dick,” and it’s a giant savannah away from “The Lion King.” It has its charms, and it remains essentially true to the spirit of the animated TV series that spawned it while finding its wholly theatrical identity. It also is totally predictable.


Somewhat recommended

When: Through July 10

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $33 – $100

Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Danny Skinner (from left) plays Patrick, with Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks and Ethan Slater as SpongeBob in the world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Squidward (Gavin Lee), Sandy (Lilli Cooper) and SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) sing in the world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Directed and co-conceived by Tina Landau (an expert at ensemble building), written by the witty Kyle Jarrow, deftly arranged and orchestrated by Tom Kitt, and featuring exuberant musical direction by Julie McBride (who leads a sensational orchestra), the story is propelled by an underwater Doomsday scenario.

Bikini Bottom — home to SpongeBob (Ethan Slater, an immensely gifted physical comedian with boundless energy and, despite his bright yellow hair, a decidedly un-Trumpian spirit) and his fellow deep-sea creatures — faces imminent destruction as a nearby volcano, Mount Humongous, is Hi just a day away from erupting and subsuming the town. This mortal threat elicits both the best and worst in all of “seakind.” But it notably brings together the brainy Sandy Cheeks (the easily winning and natural Lilli Cooper), a Texas-bred scientist and martial arts master doing research on the ocean floor; the irrepressibly determined, long undervalued SpongeBob, and (after he gets over his temporary ascendance to savior/guru) the brawny Patrick Star (Danny Skinner). Together they carry out a challenging plan of salvation.

Along the way, Squidward Tentacles (Gavin Lee in a sort of Christopher Walken riff), outfitted with an extra pair of legs, taps out a classic Broadway-style number, “I’m Not a Loser” (penned by They Might Be Giants). It is choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (of “Newsies” renown), whose movement for the show is as eclectic as its musical styles.

SpongeBob’s boss, Eugene Krabs (zesty Carlos Lopez), owner of the Krusty Krab cafe, thinks about money, while his daughter Pearl (Emmy Raver-Lampman in a rousing R&B number by Alex Ebert) craves attention.  The ever-scheming Sheldon Plankton (Nick Blaemire), also thinks about profiting from the impending catastrophe, and briefly sees hope for reconciliation with Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu). The town’s Mayor (Gaelen Gilliland) bloviates to no effect. And Patchy the Pirate (deftly played by Jason Michael Snow) has a big number with a winning ditty by Sarah Bareilles.

In many ways the star of the production is set and costume designer David Zinn (with lighting magic by Kevin Adams) whose romper-room creation spills into the theater’s balcony boxes and includes everything from fantastic Rube Goldberg-like contraptions that spew out volcanic boulders, to a mountain built with cardboard boxes on giant Home Depot-like warehouse carts, to the mouth of the volcano that takes the form of a stunning interlacing of ladders.

But for all the exuberance, the show exhausts itself long before it’s over. Cartoons, even when humanized, are on a 30-minute clock at best.

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