Fort Worth — Somebody should pass out sunglasses for The SpongeBob Musical, the Day-Glo show about small joys and big trouble in the tiny undersea town of Bikini Bottom. Presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth at Bass Performance Hall, this is great goofy fun for fans who sailed with the original Nickelodeon animated series, little folks who’ve just come on board — and grownups who thought they were only along for the ride.
SpongeBob was something of a surprise hit on Broadway in 2017, with plenty of the credit going to clever director Tina Landau, who conceived a “kids” musical that’s not just for kids, a show with A-level songs, choreography, tech artistry, and humor to catch audiences of all ages, hook, line and sinker. Landau and music director Patrick Hoagland brought off a genius idea: ask big-name songwriters from many genres to contribute a song. There are tunes from John Legend, T.I., Cyndi Lauper with Rob Hyman, Sara Bareilles, Yolanda Adams, They Might Be Giants, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Plain White T’s, Panic! At the Disco, Lady Antebellum, Jonathan Coulton and others.
Writer and musician Kyle Jarrow’s script (volcano threatens Bikini Bottom; WHO will save us?) has the just-right cartoony outline, but fills it in with heart and some worth-thinking-about notions on friendship, courage, and overcoming differences in tough times.
As the sunny yellow fellow himself, Lorenzo Pugliese gets waves of love from the audience. He’s the perfect SpongeBob, high-energy and optimistic; every day is “The Best Day Ever,” whether he’s hanging with pet snail Gary, chasing a promotion at the Krusty Krab, or saving Bikini Bottom from Mt. Humongous, the recently rumbly neighborhood volcano. Sure, he has some esteem issues that get him down, but it never lasts for long. SpongeBob sings and dances, flips and flops, and (oh, you knew he would) saves his world. Pretty good for a “simple sponge” (or is he?) who really shouldn’t have all those body parts.
Beau Bradshaw wins hearts as Patrick Star, SpongeBob’s big pink buddy. He and Pugliese fill the hall with a duet of Plain White T’s uplifting “BFF,” and Patrick stays true to their friendship, even when some passing fish make him their guru. Gospel singer/songwriter Adams comes up with the delightful church-choir rave “Super Sea Star Savior” (“Oh Pink One, you are everything”), sung and danced by the super-syncopated Sardine Corps…with church fans, yet.
Daria Pilar Redus is Sandy Cheeks, the science-minded Texas girl squirrel who’s living experimentally under the sea. “What in chicken-fried tarnation was that?” she wonders, as the volcano rattles and rolls. Sandy’s signature bubble helmet (remember, she’s a land mammal who needs air!) is assumed to be there, following the graceful curve of her afro. The clever, color-saturated costumes by designer David Zinn give a humanized “impression” of characters; no full-on animal suits allowed.
Cody Cooley’s cranky octopus neighbor Squidward, in fact, looks like he’s dressed for golf, until we notice he has four legs. He’s a downbeat guy with a yen for showbiz, and Cooley turns out to be quite the quad-legged tap dancer in “I’m Not a Loser,” written by They Might Be Giants. Squidward’s squelching walk across the stage is one of the show’s many LOL sound effects, many of them done live onstage by the Foley Fish, aka the talented Ryan Blihovde. Foley design is by Mike Dobson and sound design by Walter Trarbach — and taken together, their work on split-second timing, keeping sounds in sync with actors, projections, lava balls and much more, is simply uh-mazing.
Zach Kononov’s Mr. Krabs is the money-grubbing owner of the Krusty Krab diner. He’s kitted out in red crab-claw boxing gloves, and doesn’t see “manager material” in SpongeBob, his underpaid fry cook. Both Kononov and Méami Maszewski, playing Krabs’ whale daughter Pearl, do a great job with their duet “Daddy Knows Best,” written by Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Tristan McIntyre’s Plankton is a hoot as the plot’s laughably bad-at-it bad guy, seated like a Bond villain to impress his robot wife Karen the Computer (Caitlin Ort). Perhaps distracted by their oddball romance, these two never seem to get much for all their scheming and bwaa-ha-ha-ing. Morgan Blanchard is righteous as SpongeBob fan Patchy the Pirate, making the case for “Po-arrr Pirates” everywhere. Richie Dupkin is cute as scared-spitless news guy Perch Perkins, reporting the coming apocalypse; and Helen Regula is stately, and then scary, as the Mayor who gets a little bit, um, authoritarian in the crisis.
SpongeBob the Musical starts gentle, with a pre-show jam (think ukes, bongos and kazoos) led by cast members and musicians. Things crank up quickly, though, for numbers that showcase the many styles of the orchestra under conductor Patrick Hoagland and associate Cameron Tragesser. Christopher Gattelli’s terrific choreography just keeps going, and the cast’s hard work shows, both in solo spots and a string of hilariously elaborate ensemble pieces.
Peter Negrini’s projections, from parades of sea life to ticking doom clocks to enormous volcanos, are beyond imaginative—and often funny too. And with David Zinn’s bright, beachy set (like a giant Tiki Room full of re-purposed pool toys) and Kevin Adams’ lights added in, Bikini Bottom comes to noisy, lit-up life, like a Mardi Gras party with fish.
“Good morning, world, and all who inhabit it!” And Gary the Snail (rolling on what seems to be a skateboard) comes by to greet him: “Meow.” If you can’t squeeze some silly, sweet fun out of The SpongeBob Musical, somebody had better check your pulse. My companion for the opening-night show sat silent and poker-faced for the whole first number. When it finished, she looked at me and said: “Oh, wow!”
And started to dance in her seat.
» There are two more chances on Sunday, Feb. 23 to see the show (1:30 and 6:30 p.m.); and it also plays in July at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas.