Because of its limited accessibility, theater is often seen as an elitist art. Most people can turn on the television, listen to the latest song on Spotify or go to their local movie theater for the latest blockbuster. It takes much more dedication and money to reserve almost three hours of your evening to watch a bunch of people sing dramatically about revolutionary France or a fictional feline world. The medium’s seeming exclusivity breeds a certain sense of snobbery that could inspire some theater aficionados to turn their noses up at the idea of a musical version of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Based off of the beloved children’s cartoon, the musical follows SpongeBob, a sea sponge living in the fictional underwater world Bikini Bottom, and the rest of the town’s characters as they learn that a nearby volcano is set to erupt within a matter of days. The musical opened on Broadway in 2017 to surprisingly good reviews, receiving 12 Tony nominations and leading with “Mean Girls” as the most nominated production at the 72nd annual Tony Awards. Despite critical acclaim, financially the show was not as successful and the production closed within a year. The musical lives on now with a U.S. tour and a live television recording that aired on Nickelodeon.
Traditionalists may say the stage is meant for Stephen Sondheim and George Gershwin, not humanoid sponges and underwater squirrels. Which is fair, because at times the show feels better suited for a cruise or theme park than a Broadway-worthy stage. For what it is, however, BroadwaySF’s production of “The SpongeBob Musical” did well at leaning into the campy humor of its source material, never trying to take itself more seriously than its audience.
In terms of production value, most of the musical’s creative components are good but not great. The score, with songs written by artists ranging from Sara Bareilles to David Bowie, is smoothly combined with the orchestration, yet none are memorable once leaving the theater. The book, while it does lightly touch on themes of xenophobia and mob mentality currently reflected in today’s sociopolitical climate, also feels very simplistic and more driven by action than by character or theme.
You have to applaud the creativity of the designers, however. Taking animated source material and translating it to live theater was an ambitious feat that mostly paid off. The set design is whimsical and the staging is well done — one memorable scene comes during the climax, wherein SpongeBob’s climb to the top of the mountain is conveyed through intricate choreography involving ladders. Additionally, for the most part the costumes are innovatively done. Choosing to adapt the cartoon’s characters with more human appearances was a smart choice, and the costumes that do falter may just do so because of the difficult challenge of putting humanoid sea animals onstage.
The actors are also excellent in their roles — Lorenzo Pugliese truly embodies the titular character, seamlessly bringing the more cartoonish mannerisms of SpongeBob to life onstage in a way that engaged the audience. Pugliese and Tristan McIntyre, who plays perennial antagonist Plankton, are the standouts of the cast. McIntyre has excellent comedic timing and truly epitomizes the campy humor of the musical — whenever he was onstage, the audience was in tears.
Those who think SpongeBob and the stage should never mix are entitled to their opinions. Because at the end of the day, this is a musical about an anthropomorphic sea sponge, and it is not going to be for everyone. And while it did play well at the Golden Gate Theatre, there was a lingering feeling that it would fit in better at Universal Studios. Putting aside any predispositions about the show, however, the production has every tenet of an entertaining musical. It may not be the next “Les Misérables” or “Rent,” but any night that ends with the boisterous cast leading an uproarious rendition of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme song is a good night.