Something about New York in the dead of winter makes even a tourist-filled Broadway theater feel like a fireplace. The allure of live singing, dancing, and costumes—regular non-starters for anyone steering clear of Times Square—is more attractive as the weekend-long Netflix binges blossom into bedsores. Broadway adaptations in particular provide us with something familiar, but presented in a way we haven’t experienced yet. This impulse has given us musicals as savory as Spamalot and as thirsty as American Idiot; now, it sees itself expressed masterfully in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, a show you’d have a hard time finding a reason to hate.
I initially had my hesitations, especially because I don’t “do” musical theater (don’t ask). For those who haven’t read the New York Times’s joyful review of the show, SquarePants and the gang are all played by real actors without giant animal suits (sponges are animals, got it?). Making his Broadway debut, Ethan Slater embodies the sweet squeakiness of the titular sea sponge in a way that must be seen to be believed. Smiling goofily in cuffed plaid slacks, what he lacks in physical squareness he makes up for in indefatigable stage presence. I had a hard time remembering he wasn’t SpongeBob by the time he took a bow. Similarly, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks and Danny Skinner as Patrick Star felt like the best live-action performances from a cartoon squirrel and a starfish, respectively, that I’d ever seen.
Jai'len Christine Li Josey nearly stole the entire show as Pearl, her voice eliciting roars of joy from the audience as she lamented the greed of her dad, Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris). The rap from Plankton (Wesley Taylor) was nothing less than trapaholic, while Gavin Lee, who played Squidward, earned his standing ovation with his heart-rending rendition of “I’m Not a Loser,” which was composed by They Might Be Giants’s John Flansburgh and John Linnell—I shed a single tear while clapping my hands to the bone. From pink fishnet stockings to top hats and canes, the number resembled like an aquatic rendition of the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” bit in Young Frakenstein, only with sad, tap-dancing squids and a whole lot of glitter.
But it’s the songs that set SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical a few pineapples above other comparative shows. With original songs from David Bowie and Brian Eno, T.I., Panic! at the Disco, John Legend, and many others, as many kids as adults in the audience were smiling, singing, and rocking out as the music carried us seamlessly from scenes of jellyfishing to the impending armageddon—which always seems to have a place in Bikini Bottom.
As the story goes, doomsday is on its way: A volcano is going to erupt, and SpongeBob and the gang have two days to come up with a plan. There’s plenty of running around in circles, screaming, and waving one’s arms over one’s head—as well as references to gay relationships, war, capitalism, healthy living, and saving the ocean. The musical was basically like an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, but with the actual bells and whistles of a Broadway spectacular. You’d be right if you thought I wanted to kick my feet up and keep watching for another hour or two, and I wasn’t alone: Seated beside me were a mother and son who had traveled all the way from South Dakota for the holidays to stay in Times Square and experience New York for the first time. They were self-professed “huge fans” of the cartoon, and laughed together the the whole time. I kept turning over to look at them, because their reactions were the kind you rarely see in real life: pure joy. SpongeBob, I think, will save us all.
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