The Spongebob Musical

Book by Kyle Jarrow based upon the series by Stephen Hillenburg, music by various artists with additional lyrics and music by, respectively, Jonathan Coulton and Tom Kitt
The Path Entertainment
The Opera House, Manchester

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The Spongebob Musical Credit: Mark Senior
The Spongebob Musical Credit: Mark Senior
The Spongebob Musical Credit: Mark Senior
The Spongebob Musical Credit: Mark Senior
The Spongebob Musical Credit: Mark Senior
The Spongebob Musical Credit: Mark Senior

The cartoon Spongebob Squarepants originated in the USA, which does not have a pantomime tradition. Moving the cartoon to the stage, therefore, results in a sophisticated, glossy musical rather than the cheap and cheerful panto that might have been produced in England. Actually, there is so much singing—the opening number lasts ten minutes—the show is close to an opera.

The undersea city of Bikini Bottom has a diverse population which defies the laws of nature. Not only do residents include a mammal—the squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Chrissie Bhima) who has a penchant for science—but a crab has a whale for a daughter which the script acknowledges does not make a lot of sense. Central to the city is the relentlessly positive Spongebob Squarepants (Lewis Cornay) who, if told the day is really rotten, will reply it is the best really rotten day ever.

However, even his positive outlook is marred by a boss who does not regard him as management material. But this rapidly becomes a minor concern when the town is threatened by the eruption of nearby Mount Humongous. As panic spreads through the town, residents begin to look for scapegoats and the unthinkable happens—Spongebob and his best friend Patrick (Irfan Damani) fall out. It begins to seem like even if the town survives the eruption, it will no longer be the happy place it once was—unless Spongebob can devise a plan.

On opening night, technical issues delayed the curtain rising and there seemed to be intermittent microphone problems. The bass is cranked up so loud, the sound vibrated through the seats.

The Spongebob Musical has attracted a lot of young children but does not pander to them. Apart from a pirate character who opens both parts of the show, there is no direct appeal to, or involvement of, the youngsters. But then Kyle Jarrow’s script does not include too many gags designed to go over the heads of children and appeal to adults, and there are no ‘blue’ jokes (no-one remarks the device intended to plug the volcano—the Eruptor Interrupter—sounds like a sex toy). There are visual gags with sound effects being created in plain view and it is possible an empty-headed character being regarded as a saviour is a dig at Donald Trump (the show launched in the States in the 2016 election year). But in the main, audiences must accept the off-centre humour and charm of The Spongebob Musical rather than what they might have anticipated.

Director Tara Overfield Wilkinson suggests a somewhat scavenger background for Bikini Bottom. Sarah Mercadé’s colourful but decidedly eccentric costumes give the impression of having been put together from items found floating in the ocean. No attempt is made to indicate visually the species of the various characters—a rare exception is Eugene Krabbs wearing a pair of crab claws. Instead, clues might be given audibly—thunderous footsteps and the cast miming the floor shaking as a whale enters—or the audience might be left to use their imagination. The title character is portrayed not as a square sponge but rather as an over-eager nerd who, to be honest, one would probably try to avoid.

There is a subtle environmental / recycling message in the costumes and Steve Howell’s set. Some of the clothes are put together from discarded rubber gloves, while Mount Humongous is a mountain of plastic bottles.

This is not to say the production looks cheap. Tara Overfield Wilkinson uses the very large cast to stunning effect. Most of the musical numbers evolve into full-cast, thunderous dance routines; this is not a show to leave the audience feeling short-changed on spectacle.

The Spongebob Musical avoids all of the easy ways of ensuring satisfaction and expects the audience to take a chance and enjoy an unorthodox but oddly lovable show—much like the original cartoon really.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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