Thursday, January 04, 2018

SpongeBob SquarePants

All entertainment, they say, is a reflection of its time, place, and culture. That certainly applies to the cheerfully gaudy, brilliantly staged SpongeBob SquarePants musical. It's an unapologetically--and, now, absolutely typically--cross-marketed vehicle, so there's that whole American obsession with commerce, consumption and getting more and more of the same shiny baubly things right there. Also, for its incredible silliness and good humor, its plot turns out to be pretty dark in ways that mirror contemporary preoccupations: Oh, no! Because of climate change, the deep-sea town of Bikini Bottom is going to be destroyed by an underwater volcano! Sandy (Lilli Cooper), the science-minded Texan squirrel who lives among the sea creatures, has a brilliant plan to save the day, but because she's an outsider, the townfolk won't listen to her. Some descend into heavily armed anarchy, while others idly put their faith in the town's incompetent, corrupt politicians. Some agree with the scheming Plankton (Wesley Taylor) that raising money for a huge escape pod is the way to go; SpongeBob's boss, Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris), is especially beholden to the almighty dollar. A group of sardines forms a cult and makes the dimwitted starfish Patrick (Danny Skinner) their unwitting leader. And all poor Squidward (Gavin Lee) wants to do is take to the stage for a big sing-and-dance routine (he gets the eleven-o'clock number, and it's glorious). As all hell breaks loose and the town nears doom, will SpongeBob (Ethan Slater)--along with the misunderstood if brilliant Sandy and the perpetually befuddled if well-meaning Patrick--be able to save the day?

Joan Marcus
Um, yeah, of course, because if Bikini Bottom blew up, there'd be no more SpongeBob. So--spoiler alert!--the trio saves the day, and everyone Learns Something About Themselves and Others. In the process, there are plenty of reasonably catchy songs in a variety of styles, and flashy production numbers ranging from intimate to enormous, from Blankenbuelher to Ziegfeld. The show zips along, it's perfectly well-timed and charming, and the audience I saw it with seemed to have fun with it.

And yes, still, I realize I sound a little cynical about all this. That's because I am, much as I did enjoy the show. I've never been one to kid myself into thinking that the most intensely commercial center for American stage entertainment is ever purely concerned about art, but in the old art/commerce balance, this show leans a titch too hard into the commerce zone to gobble up without the occasional raised eyebrow. Sure, the show's fun, spectacular, and gorgeously realized, and the cast is incredibly game. Still, something about SpongeBob SquarePants left me colder than I wanted to be left. Maybe it's because it really did rely on tropes that serve to constantly remind spectators about how awful the world is right now. Maybe it was my mood, which because of the previous sentence tends toward the sour these days. Or maybe it's because the show is so completely, totally, overwhelmingly rooted to the cartoon from which it springs that I left the theater unconvinced that it was genuinely fulfilling--not just for me, but for the company. Is imitating the characters' voices and movements really accurately, reciting lines taken verbatim and reenacting entire scenes from the cartoon genuinely fulfilling for the monstrously talented cast? Is singing the SpongeBob theme song at the curtain call not a little tiring after a while? Behind the day-glo colors and the cheery facade, is this show a challenge for--well, for anyone? And does it have to be, or am I just an enormous buzzkill?

I know, I know, I sound like a snob--and a waffly one at that. But truly, in this case, and for all the charm and innovation on display, I just couldn't subsume my concerns enough to get lost in this production.

This being said, word of mouth on the show is what convinced me to see it in the first place. And I came in with prejudice: I don't typically like shows based as wholly on tv shows and movies as this one is. You might not care; a lot of people I know and respect were way more tickled by the production than I was. Still, for all its cheer, its goodwill--its heart--I couldn't help but feel like something about this production lacked soul.

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