To the best of my recollection, I have never been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but I’m left questioning that in the wake of The SpongeBob Musical‘s Nashville premiere on Tuesday night at TPAC’s Jackson Hall. As someone who has never watched a single episode of the now 20-year-old Nickelodeon cartoon, it could well be that the onslaught of song and dance is not targeted towards my solidly Xennial 1982-born self. It’s not that The SpongeBob Musical is without its charms. Quite the opposite. Rather, it’s that the show endeavors to charm you over and over again like an eager four-year-old full of too much Halloween candy until you’re left exhausted and ready for a quiet, dark room in which you might contemplate life with a glass of bourbon.
Let’s first dispatch with the plot of the show. If the musical The Book of Mormon had a one night stand with The Lord of the Rings and their love child went on to educate itself in homages to classic Broadway musicals (a dominant trait gained from the Mormon side of the family) and really, really loved to put on its own musicals in the garage at dad’s house on weekends, you’d have something approaching the book of SpongeBob.
That’s not to say that the book is vapid. Far from it. The story is assembled with love and has plenty to offer even the SpongeBob uninitiated. With moments that reflect troubling political realities torn from the evening news, the show keeps your interest by putting just enough of a narrative thread through the madness to keep the wheels on the bus going round and round. Unless you’ve been living without television for the past twenty years, you know who SpongeBob is and can at least take an educated guess at the rest of the crew.
As the show’s reason for being, Lorenzo Pugliese inhabits the eponymous sponge’s britches and relentless cheer. It’s perhaps an odd thing to consider… a human being inhabiting an erstwhile animated creation and not looking a thing like him. But in spirit, Pugliese might as well be buck-toothed and dandelion yellow. His joyous, wide-eyed grin genuinely and honestly sells every minute of SpongeBob’s joy, pathos, and struggle.
Beau Bradshaw’s Patrick Star is a riotous best buddy turned Messiah to a cult of Sardines. Patrick, you see, isn’t even dispensing fortune cookie wisdom. The sardines who combine to form his cult of personality are just stupid enough to believe they’ve found their Dear Leader. It takes work to play dumb intelligently and Bradshaw’s way with Patrick is charming and blessedly treads this side of the line dividing enjoyable from exhausting.
Daria Pilar Redus continues the suspension of disbelief parade playing a squirrel named Sandy Cheeks. Yes, the squirrel can live underwater. Just cope with that now. As the sold mammalian citizen of Bikini Bottom, Ms. Redus is the natural pariah when disaster threatens the community. When vandals spray paint a rather threatening and ominous message onto a wall, it’s clear that there’s a pseudo morality play afoot meant to make us look in the mirror at our country’s own prejudices and quick leaps to judgment.
David Zinn’s hallucinogenic costumes and neon stage design are a fever-dream of color, texture, and unending surprise. When something works, it works. And Zinn’s undersea world works damn well. Kevin Adams’ candy shop lighting and Peter Nigrini’s ever-shifting projections complete this surrealist palette that imagines an animated world in three dimensions. It feels so often that the stage is struggling to hold it all in as the cast emerges into the audience and the lights paint Jackson Hall with a watery undulation.
The score presents some moments of struggle for me. A musical theatre piece is generally composed by one or maybe two people. The SpongeBob Musical credits no fewer than twenty composers. And it’s not that these artists are slouches… you may even recognize a few names among them. Lady Antebellum. Cyndi Lauper. Sara Bareilles. John Legend. David Bowie. Where I find the challenge is that the score lacks a cohesive feel. That’s only natural when the slate of talents recruited to create the score are so diverse and uniquely talented in their own ways. Some songs shine while others merely glint. It happens.
My overall impression is that a devotee of the SpongeBob universe will find this show fitting right into their expectations. It’s joyous, a riot of colors, provides laughs to spare, and has abundant heart. For those like me, people with only a passing familiarity, The SpongeBob Musical has plenty to offer, but perhaps less to connect with. I was telling my guest for the evening on the drive home that I grew up with Mister Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street on PBS. SpongeBob SquarePants didn’t premiere until my junior year in high school. It didn’t exist in my childhood and was never a part of my life outside of seeing the character balloon of SpongeBob himself in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
If you love the cartoon, I’ll nearly guarantee you that you’re going to love every bright, happy moment of the show as it floods across the footlights. There’s a lot to love. Really, there is. But simply put, I began to check out mentally halfway through act two. Too much became too much and the slapstick humor wore me out. Director Tina Landau’s creation is unique, to be sure. At the end of it, though, I was ready for a quiet space with no more blinding lights.
The SpongeBob Musical continues at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall through Sunday evening. Tickets are available online at TPAC.org and at the box office.