Monday, May 14, 2018

New Broadway Musicals: SpongeBob SquarePants & Mean Girls

Lilli Cooper, Ethan Slater, and Danny Skinner in SpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway. (Photo: Youtube)

The output of musicals in the current Broadway season seems leaner than it is coming after the unusually hefty 2016-17 roster. The reason last season was so heavy was that many companies had elected to delay for a year to avoid coming up against Hamilton in the 2016 Tony Awards race. And even with more shows to choose from, I would hardly call 2016-2017 a banner year for musicals: I loved Bandstand and Come from Away, and there were several reasons to see Dear Evan Hansen if you could ignore the nonsensical book, but that was about all. This season brought the transfer of The Band’s Visit, one of the best new musical shows of recent years, from its downtown venue at the Atlantic Stage Company to a Broadway house. Having opted to skip the two new jukebox musicals, Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville and Summer (a bio of Donna Summer), I checked out the only other offerings, SpongeBob SquarePants and Mean Girls, shortly after their official openings.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, to give it its full title, is derived, of course, from the long-running animated TV series created by Stephen Hillenburg, which has already generated two feature-length movies. (The first, released in 2004, is fun; I haven’t seen the second, Sponge Out of Water.) Its hero is a talking sea sponge who lives in a community of aquatic creatures, Bikini Bottom. In the stage version, written by Kyle Jarrow and featuring songs by a wide variety of pop writers, the volcano, Mount Humongous, that towers above Bikini Bottom – and has been voted Most Likely to Kill You seven years in a row - threatens to erupt and obliterate it. It’s the calculations of SpongeBob’s friend Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), a science-nerd squirrel and the town’s only non-gill-breathing inhabitant, that predicted the “volcano apocalypse” and she devises a way to prevent it, too. But almost everybody in Bikini Bottom behaves so badly – hysterically, selfishly, shortsightedly – in the wake of the peril that the road to enacting her solution, which already requires an act of courage on the part of SpongeBob (Ethan Slater), is further complicated. The main obstacle is Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor), who, with the help of his main squeeze, a computer named Karen (Stephanie Hsu), is encouraging his neighbors to relocate to his native Chumville. (He also schemes to hypnotize them all into buying chum burgers at his restaurant, The Chum Bucket, rather than patronizing The Krusty Krab, where SpongeBob is employed.)

The show is consistently hilarious and winningly silly – until, sometime before intermission, it clears the bar and becomes spectacularly silly. It’s also endearing: a paean to friendship, home, community, cooperation, diversity, science and optimism that takes a stand against scapegoating, exploitation, materialism, abuse of power and selfishness, and all without lecturing the audience for a single minute. The songs (written by, among others, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, They Might Be Giants, David Bowie and Brian Eno) are a mixed bag, but you couldn’t say that about Jarrow’s book, the high-octane cast or the eye-filling production, which was directed by Tina Landau and choreographed by the amazing Christopher Gattelli. (I happened to see it and My Fair Lady, which Gattelli also collaborated on, the same day.  Is there a fan club I can join?) David Zinn’s set is a collage of steampunk, neon, cardboard cut-out and Rube Goldberg machine, and Peter Nigrini’s projections dance exuberantly across it under Kevin Adams’s candy-cane lighting; Zinn also designed the costumes and Charles G. Lapointe did the wigs and hair. The visuals, in psychedelic jujube colors, are so inventive that you hardly know where to begin describing them. SpongeBob’s boss Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris, who sounds like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons), has bloated red plastic mitts for hands. Zinn has equipped silver-haired Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee, channeling Paul Lynde) with a second set of legs, so I leave you to imagine what it looks like when he gets to his big second-act dance number, “I’m Not a Loser,” which he performs in a green and gold tux and a green top hat. Plankton wears green velour and silk, an eye patch and a ponytail; Karen the Computer matches him in a green afro and glittery green balloon pants. SquareBob’s best bud Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), a big guy with a pompadour, acquires a set of sardine groupies who mimic his trademark colors, bright green and pink, in their accordion skirts and wool caps. (He’s a sea star; they get it into their heads that he’s a superstar.) There are fields of jellyfish: plastic umbrellas dripping with streamers that are manipulated by dancers in the “Hero Is My Middle Name” number. And some of the most ticklish effects play on the hero’s sponginess, like a couch that accordions out. Among the charmingly nonsensical details that have been rerouted from the TV show are SpongeBob's pet snail (which meows) and the French accent affected by the narrator (Tom Kenny, originator of the SpongeBob role and co-author of one of the songs), who announces at the midway point, when things seem most dire for Bikini Bottom, “Enjoy your last intermission – ever!”

Slater is an ace singer and dancer and clown and his speaking voice sounds like it has alto bubbles in it. The entire ensemble is wildly talented, including Brynn Williams, who recently joined the cast as Krabs’s daughter Pearl and has a soulful vibrato. Cooper suggests what Martha Raye might have sounded like if she’d been an R&B singer. I was ready to write off Brandon Espinoza’s Patchy the Pirate, a meta-theatrical character who starts off the musical, as an intrusion, until he came back after intermission with a pirate crew (including one Pittsburgh Pirate) to perform “Poor Pirates.” The Bikini Bottom line is that there are no intrusions in this show. It’s free-wheeling bliss.

Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Kate Rockwell, & Taylor Louderman in Mean Girls. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I liked everyone on stage in Mean Girls, too. Erika Henningsen plays Cady Heron, the high-school newbie who finds herself simultaneously taken up by a pair of sharp-witted outliers, Janis Sakisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and her gay best friend Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), and the trio of mean girls at the top of the social pyramid, Regina George (Taylor Louderman), Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell). Cheech Manohar is Kevin G., the head of the Mathletes, whose  brand of imitation cool is so outrĂ© it’s like what hip might look like in the Bizarro universe. Kerry Butler swings back and forth among three adult roles, including that of Regina’s mother, desperate to be pals with her imperious daughter, who doesn’t suffer anyone gladly. The musical, adapted by Tina Fey from her 2004 screenplay, with songs by Jeff Richmond (music) and Legally Blonde’s Nell Benjamin (lyrics), is enjoyable when it isn’t exhausting, which, at a guess, I’d say is between half and two-thirds of the time. I kept wanting to dial down the frenetic staging and choreography by Casey Nicholaw and the video effects by Finn Ross and Adam Young, and slim down a few of the (too many) numbers so that all or most of the thirty-member cast didn’t populate every single one. It’s funny: never for a moment did I find the nuttiness of SpongeBob SquarePants excessive, but at least half a dozen times in each of the two acts of Mean Girls I found myself gasping for a time out.

Park, as the frantic Gretchen, petrified that her status as Regina’s sidekick is being threatened, is the funniest performer on the stage (Manohar would be runner-up in that department), and Henson, who steals the musical at the top of act two with the tap number “Stop,” is perhaps the most talented. But it’s a solid ensemble, and God knows they have energy to burn. I just don’t know whether any musical comedy needs this much energy. Intermittently I had the feeling of being on a caffeine jag, waiting to crash.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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