THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _15th APR.

April 13, 2023

images © Mark Senior.

In the great tombola of potential pull quotes that follow the debut of a new production, ‘better than expected’ and ‘it doesn’t need to be this good’ don’t perhaps crackle with quite the same fervour as some of the inevitable, nautical-flavoured gushing that will come for The SpongeBob Musical.

And yet, in a way, it’s probably amongst the loftiest praise one can afford a show whose brand recognition and popularity alone would likely have always guaranteed bums in seats, anyway. The ‘SpongeBob’ behemoth – which comfortably remains Paramount’s most commercially lucrative and viable franchise, on merchandising alone – could’ve easily coasted (mild, tangential pun there) on delivering an adaptation as facsimile to the kind of family-favourite, pleasant-yet-pedestrian offerings of, say, Cbeebies’ stage offerings.

Instead, what Tina Landau, Kyle Jarrow and a whole slew of musical talents first delivered on Broadway, was a critically-acclaimed, multi-Tony nominated postmodern treat. Fast forward a few years, and a certain global pandemic later, and Tara Overfield Wilkinson delivers up a reworked, tweaked, hyper-energised UK debut of a show that, yes, is a darn sight better than it had any right or need to be.

Following the antics of the very same cast of nautical misfits as the celebrated animated tv series, The SpongeBob Musical (itself, a slight reworking of the show’s former title) sees a calamity rumbling away on the shores (beds?) of Bikini Bottom, as a nearby volcano threatens to erupt and wipe out everyone’s ‘Best Day Ever’. Eternal optimist SpongeBob (Lewis Cornay, in what ought be a star-making turn) puts his trust in friendship, good times, and the smarts of his science-y friend Sandy (a Texan squirrel, naturally) in setting out to save the day.

Soakin’ up the Success: First landing on screens back in 1999, the original SpongeBob Squarepants (pictured above, © Nickolodeon/United Plankton) has established itself as one of the most successful animated series of all time. It remains Paramount‘s most profitable individual franchise, Nickolodeon‘s highest-rated show, and over the course of its over two-decade run, won Emmy, Annie and BAFTA awards alike.

Like so much here, Jarrow’s book paints itself in gloriously broad, multicolour strokes, but there’s wit and nuance in there, too. Steve Howell’s big, blue, beautiful, West End-worthy staging and Ben Bull’s brilliantly implemented video work are peppered with puns and quips galore, at everything from the Government (’10 Drowning Street’) to COVID dictats (‘Stay indoors, Protect the kelp, Save lives’) and even a slew of pop stars (‘Tuna Turner’ and ‘The Spice Gills’, anyone?). And if, in execution, SpongeBob feels in places more akin to a hyperactive panto on fishy steroids than a conventional musical theatre outing, that it maintains the necessary energy levels to do so thoroughout, and indeed to honour the manic spirit of the source material in the process, is itself no mean feat.

“Like so much here, Jarrow’s book paints itself in gloriously broad, multicolour strokes, but there’s wit and nuance in there, too.”

Overfield Wilkinson, along with choreographer Fabian Aloise, deserve particular credit for keeping this adventure in Bikini Bottom so consistently funny and kinetic, even at times when its story and musical numbers threaten to languish on the same or similar beats. The duo dial every number here right up to eleven, and there’s invention at every step, too – from a beautifully realised spot of sponge puppetry (of all things) that helps craft solo number ‘A Simple Sponge’ into a genuinely moving spot of stagecraft, to the raucous, roof-raising gospel stylings of ‘Super Sea Star Savior’ or a gloriously, full-throatedly vaudevillian song and dance number for Gareth Gates’ Squidward in ‘I’m Not a Loser’. Sure, some of the seeds of what is presented here are courtesy of the original Broadway creatives, but Aloise and Overfield Wilkinson deserve immense credit for injecting every step and song of SpongeBob with infectious energy and zest.

Soakin’ up the Success: First landing on screens back in 1999, the original SpongeBob Squarepants (pictured above, © Nickolodeon/United Plankton) has established itself as one of the most successful animated series of all time. It remains Paramount‘s most profitable individual franchise, Nickolodeon‘s highest-rated show, and over the course of its over two-decade run, won Emmy, Annie and BAFTA awards alike.

This is all enabled, of course, by a splendid company and ensemble who deliver the goods as intended. The aforementioned Cornay is outstandingly good – channeling the comedic, quirky oddness of the titular character with an effortless, likeably charm, whilst still finding time to showcase his heart, and belt out an incredible solo or two, to boot. He’s ably supported by Gates and Irfan Damani – the latter as SpongeBob’s lovable, dim-witted ‘bff’ Patrick Star – but it’s Chrissie Bhima as Sandy who regularly threatens to run away with proceedings. With a barnstorming command of character and physical comedy, and equally impressive vocals to match, Sandy’s story as scapegoat (‘scape squirrel’) for the calamities besieging Bikini Bottom offer some of the story’s most obvious yet touching undertones. Remembering that this is pitched primarily at kids,  including concepts such as ‘otherising’, and the perils of cheaply apportioning blame wherever possible, is a nice bit of social commentary and criticism for the show to include to its younger audiences.

“Cornay is outstandingly good – channeling the comedic, quirky oddness of the titular character, whilst still finding time to showcase his heart, and belt out an incredible solo or two.”

Elsewhere, Richard J Hunt is a lot of fun as an opportunistic Mr Krabs, whilst a talented Sarah Freer routinely pops up throughout to dazzle with a song or sassy interjection. Drag Race alum, Divina De Campo, is deliciously droll as the villainous, diminutive Sheldon J. Plankton, whose scheming with ‘wife’ Karen the Computer (Hannah Lowther) allows the show the chance to divulge into even some deadpan exploration of a dried-up relationship, rekindling some of its lost frisson. Speaking of Lowther, with so many of the company on multi-role duty, it speaks volumes to the talent on stage that she, along with the likes of Rebecca Lisewski, Reece Kerridge, Rhys Batten and Eloise Davies all disappear into such disparate, hilarious roles as pompous politicians, cocktail-swilling doomsayers and even a school of hilarious, fawning sardines (arguably the show’s finest scene-stealers). Keep a keen eye open, too, for TV stalwart Richard Arnold as the newscaster reporting on impending disaster, and an ear for musical veteran Alex Gaumond’s dulcet tones as the show’s Gallic-lilted narrator.

All of this comes with a big, volcano-sized disclaimer that The SpongeBob Musical will almost inevitably not be to everyone’s tastes. It’s big, loud (occasionally even noisy) and, as mentioned, pivots around a plot that bears the mark of its Kids’ TV show origins. It’s very consciously (and welcomely) pitched at that very same demographic here, too.

“a quick glance at the list of names who delivered music for SpongeBob says it all – vibrant, diverse, fabulous and more than a tiny bit random.”

The SpongeBob Musical doesn’t reinvent the wheel. In fact, it kind of picks up the wheel, tells a quick joke about it, then tosses it aside to focus on delivering more silly, colourful, high-energised fun. And what fun it is – the soundtrack alone, comprising of songs from the likes of Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Waitress’ Sara Bareilles and even Aerosmith – offers up a constant supply of fresh, toe-tapping or soul-searching bangers. In fact, in many ways, a quick glance at the list of names who delivered music for SpongeBob says it all – vibrant, diverse, fabulous and more than a tiny bit random. It doesn’t all completely gel together; it’s more a bricolage of inspired, tuneful fun than it is a seamless, cohesive musical whole, but there’s no denying it is utterly infectious and buoyant throughout.

So no, The SpongeBob Musical didn’t need to be this good. Yes, it is a whole lot better than perhaps anyone had the right to expect it to be. It isn’t perfect, and it likely won’t convert anyone shell-fishly going in expecting Chekov or Miller, either. But, for everyone else, it is a nautical jolt of pure, family-friendly joy, and one of the most relentlessly energetic, vibrantly staged and winningly performed original productions to come along in recent memory.

So slap on your flippers, keep a weather eye open for any errant jellyfish, and be sure to have packed enough spare change for a Krabby Patty or two (their price seems to be skyrocketing, even amidst a cost of living crisis…). Snorkel on down to Bikini Bottom and soak up a regularly dazzling, frequently funny new family favourite that we’ll hopefully still be seeing…

…wait for it…

75 YEARS LATER.

(…Google it, if you need to).

Who lives in a Pineapple under the sea, and inspired a surprisingly effective panto-musical hybrid that dazzles with exquisite performances and vibrant, kinetic staging? Answers on a postcard, c/o Bikini Bottom…

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