It was never going to be a straightforward task to translate the undersea quirk of the Spongebob Squarepants animated series into a Broadway musical. But the team of director Tina Landau, Tony-winning scenic designer David Zinn, book writer Kyle Jarrow, and a slew of talented pop-star songwriters created a critical darling out of unlikely material, garnering 12 Tony nominations in the 2018 season.
The Nickelodeon-backed show didn't last a full year on Broadway, but it wasn't for lack of catchy, memorable songs, great performances, or stunningly clever, Day-Glo creative direction. And thus the first American tour is making a pass through San Francisco this week, rebranded as The SpongeBob Musical — and it really is only for a week, a total of just seven performances including Wednesday's opening night. (The show moves on after Sunday to make way for Sting's The Last Ship.)
Fans of the 21-year-old cartoon will delight in the mostly humanoid recreations of favorite characters, including Squidward, Patrick, Eugene Krabs, his daughter Pearl who is inexplicably a whale, Larry the Lobster, Sandy Cheeks the squirrel in a diving suit, and Sheldon J. Plankton who, of course, functions as our villain. Gary, SpongeBob's lovable pet snail who meows, alas, is just a skateboard-enabled puppet.
But Zinn's set and costume designs coupled with Peter Nigrini's projection design do wonders to reimagine Bikini Bottom on the stage, jellyfish, sardines and all.
Oh, and the sardines! In this story they become a gospel-singing school/flock, worshiping at the feet of Patrick, whom they bizarrely decide is some kind of messiah. This all fits into a semi-apocalyptic storyline with some fun if depressing asides alluding to climate change, and suffice it to say you don't really come to this show for the plot.
Along the way, though, in addition to the bouncingly chipper performance by newcomer Lorenzo Pugliese as SpongeBob, we get a concert's worth of toe-tapping numbers written by the likes of They Might Be Giants, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Lady Antebellum, Sara Bareillis, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Brian Eno, The Plain White Ts, Panic! at the Disco, The Flaming Lips, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Yolanda Adams, and Jonathan Coulton. Somehow, even with that musically diverse crew, the songs cohere into a compelling score, and you never get the sense that a songwriter dashed something off to fill a gap. Christopher Gatelli's choreography is also witty and watchable throughout.
Daria Pilar Redus does excellent work as Sandy, Meami Maszewski only has to belt a few notes as Pearl to get the audience at attention, and in the secret-starring role of Squidward, Cody Cooley keeps the audience in the palm of his hand and turns out a stellar Act 2 number with "I'm Not a Loser" (written by They Might Be Giants). The ensemble, also seems like they're still incredibly excited to be on this ride, and I don't think I noticed an off step.
If you somehow know nothing about the world of SpongeBob, some of the silliness may make no sense. But for even casual fans of the show, The SpongeBob Musical is a rollicking, stupidly good time that reminds us what hyper-creative musical theater can look and sound like when the team is this strong.
'The SpongeBob Musical' plays through February 16 only at the Golden Gate Theater. Find tickets through Broadway SF.