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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, December 06, 2017 1:00 am

Musical review

Only true fans will love the SpongeBob musical

Peter Marks | Washington Post

Here are some things I learned in my 21/2 hours of attendance at the new Broadway musical version of “SpongeBob Square-Pants”:

• A squirrel can be both ambiguous and amphibious.

• Ethan Slater, who plays SpongeBob, is a kind of genius.

• A starfish often makes a good point.

• Tina Landau and David Zinn, who directed and designed “SpongeBob,” are other types of geniuses.

• For dazzling tap routines, a squid has a natural advantage.

• To really appreciate the multitudinous shenanigans of “SpongeBob SquarePants” the musical, you have to have been there.

And by “been there,” I mean spent some quality time in Bikini Bottom, the village teeming with animated marine life where SpongeBob lives. Listening to the hooting by millennial members of the audience in the Palace Theatre, where the super-bubbly musical had its official opening Monday night, I realized I had failed to adequately steep myself in the aquatic folkways of Bikini Bottom. In other words, lacking a familiarity with the voluminous Nickelodeon library and a SquarePants archive going back to the first episode in 1999, I was ill-equipped to be an authoritative consumer of the many inside jokes that had other theatergoers in stitches.

I can tell you this: Much impressive design and engineering work has gone into this $20 million production, which has been guided with an eye for childlike delight by Landau, in concert with Zinn, who designed the exuberant neon-colored sets and costumes, and Christopher Gattelli, who staged the dances - the tapping by the four-legged Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee) and a school of sardines being a particular joy. And the athletic Slater, meantime, proves to be a totally winning SpongeBob, accomplishing the unusual trick of seeming to exist simultaneously in two dimensions and three. Blessedly, a decision was made not to outfit Slater like the cartoon character; the actor's uncanny physicalizing integrates both a distinct personality and a cartoon aesthetic.

And still: I can't see recommending this show to anyone except true “SpongeBob” buffs. Some of the songs, by an array of artists including Steven Tyler, John Legend, the Plain White T's and Panic! At the Disco, are jaunty and expertly integrated into the story.

It's the story that consigns “SpongeBob SquarePants” to the novelties department. Book writer Kyle Jarrow has fashioned a lumbering plot that's too dull for a show of this scale and ambition. The drawn-out tale is about a volcano threatening to destroy Bikini Bottom, whose denizens are counting on SpongeBob and Sandy Cheeks the squirrel (Lilli Cooper) to save the day. Where, you ask, does a squirrel fit in? I've since been informed by my daughter, who was 7 when the series premiered, that Texas-born Sandy lives in a biosphere. As I said, you sort of have to have been there.