Too much to absorb in Kokandy’s bloated ‘The SpongeBob Musical’

The costumes underwhelm and the chuckles are only occasional, but the energetic cast rises above the material.

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The hero of “The SpongeBob Musical” (Frankie Leo Bennett, center) must stop a volcanic eruption with the help of Patrick Star (Isabel Cecilia Garcia) and Sandy Cheeks (Sarah Patin).

Evan Hanover

“The SpongeBob Musical” could be a delightful 90-minute production for children, packed with timely, kid-accessible takes on climate change, xenophobia, and the almighty power of self-esteem and solid friendships.

Unfortunately, the show conceived by Tina Landau and based on Stephen Hillenburg’s cartoon series clocks in at two-hours-plus, leaving Kokandy Productions and director J.D. Caudill with a bloated, garish musical that will play best to young children with exceptionally sturdy attention spans. It’s elevated by a cast that rises above the material, but Kokandy’s “SpongeBob” is also marred by occasionally sloppy production values and vexing directorial missteps.

In the end it doesn’t hold water as a fully formed musical capable of keeping all ages entertained.

‘The SpongeBob Musical’

Untitled

When: Through Sept. 3

Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.

Tickets: $30-$40

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission

Info: Kokandyproductions.com

For those unfamiliar with Hillenburg’s popular cartoon, SpongeBob (an endearing, enthusiastic Frankie Leo Bennett) lives deep in the ocean in a neighborhood called Bikini Bottom. His adventures inspired the musical featuring songs by more than a dozen composers and pop stars — Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alexander Ebert, John Legend, Lady Antebellum and Cyndi Lauper among them.

As “SpongeBob” (book by Kyle Jarrow) opens, we learn that Bikini Bottom is facing an existential crisis: A nearby volcano is threatening to erupt, an event that would essentially cook the colorful array of critters who swim and scuttle through SpongeBob’s world.

As the volcano threatens to blow, Bikini Bottom’s villainous plankton Sheldon J. Plankton (a deliciously dastardly Parker Guidry) and his partner in crime Karen the Computer (Amy Yesom Kim) plot to relocate everyone to his new planned community “Chumville,” which promises to be the oceanic version of “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” Pottersville.

It falls to SpongeBob, his starfish best friend Patrick Star (Isabel Cecilia Garcia) and scientist squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Sarah Patin) to save the day by scaling the mountainous undersea volcano with Sandy’s “erupter interrupter,” a bubble-generating device which Sandy hopes will stop the volcano. There’s also a showbiz subplot as Squidward Q. Tentacles (Quinn Rigg, milking the wannabe star conceit for all its worth) attempts to stage a benefit concert in the face of an impending underwater apocalypse.

You can’t fault director Caudill’s cast, anchored by Bennett’s endearing, relentlessly optimistic SpongeBob. Bennett brings a childlike, wide-eyed charisma to the stage and — like the rest of the nearly two-dozen-strong ensemble — more energy than a pod of dancing dolphins.

To be sure, there are chuckles. Bikini Bottom’s mayor (Connar Brown) officiously assures all and sundry that the government has the volcano under control because she’s got a task force set up to schedule meetings to discuss drafting proposals for future discussion and possible action that might help the situation. It’s an all-too relatable instance of bureaucracy in action (or inaction, if you will).

SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs (Tommy Bullington), the money-obsessed owner of the Krusty Krab restaurant, scoffs at the imminent demise of all life as he plans to monetize the crisis to sell more Krabby Patty burgers. His daughter Pearl’s (Jennifer Ledesma) obsession with the boy band the Electric Skates and will be instantly recognizable to anyone passingly familiar with the BTS fandom. (Although it’s a disappointment that only one of the Skates is actually on skates.)

But the cast can’t overcome the flaws.

Aside from Plankton’s magnificent sea-greenish trench coat and hotpants ensemble, Jakob Abderhalden’s costumes are often ill-fitting and underwhelming, especially for a show that’s supposed to pop with color and spectacle. The puppets (by Lolly Extract) are too small: Yes, plankton are tiny, but for the show to work, they need to be more than a slightly glorified sock puppet.

The bubbles, when they do show up, are barely there. The projections (design by Steve Labedz) sometimes bleed off the flimsy sheet screens set downstage. When they do fit, the lighting design (by G Max Maxin IV) sometimes renders them so faded and washed out they are barely visible. (The doomsday clock in particular is all but impossible to read.)

There are also basic sightline issues that director Caudill has failed to address. More than a few scenes involve SpongeBob and friends sitting or laying down — rendering them completely out of sight from anyone who isn’t in the front few rows.

Backed by a live band with music direction by Bryan McCaffrey, the score mostly shines through (there were mic issues with Mike Patrick’s sound design opening night) with Bennett’s powerful pipes leading the charge on Coulton’s “Bikini Bottom Day,” and leaving it all on the stage for Panic! at the Disco’s relatable “(Just a) Simple Sponge.”

There’s a good show buried in “SpongeBob.” But it’s buried deeper than Davy Jones’ locker.

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