Yes, the most exciting show on Broadway right now is based on a Nickelodeon cartoon.
It’s the closest you’ll come to seeing a cartoon in real life.
Director Tina Landau has accomplished an incredible feat in translating SpongeBob SquarePants to the stage — the show feels remarkably like a live-action cartoon. Perhaps what’s more impressive is that the style isn’t grating but infectious. Whether or not you’ve ever been a fan of the Nickelodeon series, by the end of the musical, you’ll find yourself fully immersed in this whimsical, brightly colored, sound effect–heavy world. Sure, it helps if you have warm feelings toward SpongeBob and the other residents of Bikini Bottom, but anyone who has ever been a kid who watched cartoons will experience that nostalgic thrill. The show’s vibrant aesthetic feels designed to melt even the most cynical of hearts.
Ethan Slater is delivering a career-defining performance.
The moment Ethan Slater appears onstage — instantly showcasing his fine-tuned command of SpongeBob’s vocals and mannerisms — you’ll see that he was born to play this part. And when he belts his soaring anthem, “(Just a) Simple Sponge,” you’ll realize that he’s a bonafide star. Slater displays a commitment to the character of an anthropomorphic sea sponge that is downright heroic. He’s giving a comic performance that’s both goofy and completely sincere — it would be tempting to allow a hint of irony here, but he eschews that — and it’s that earnestness that makes his SpongeBob so relentlessly charming. (His arms don’t hurt either. Who knew SpongeBob was so built?)
Every character gets a moment to shine.
SpongeBob has a fantastic ensemble, so it’s a blessing that the show allows each of its principal characters at least one moment (and often more than that) to take center stage. SpongeBob’s sidekicks Patrick (Danny Skinner) and Sandy (Lilli Cooper) are endlessly appealing in songs like “BFF” and “Hero Is My Middle Name.” Wesley Taylor displays his surprising ability to spit bars in Plankton’s rap number “When the Going Gets Tough.” As Mr. Krabs, Brian Ray Norris shines in the ode to money “Daddy Knows Best.” And when Gavin Lee’s Squidward finally, finally shows off his dancing skills — made all the more impressive by his extra appendages — in “I’m Not a Loser,” he taps off with the whole goddamn show.
Hearing Jai’Len Christine Li Josey sing is a religious experience.
Look, I realize this is going to sound overly gushy, but 19-year-old Jai’Len Christine Li Josey has one of the greatest voices I have ever heard on Broadway. She plays Pearl, Mr. Krabs’ whale daughter, so she’s not exactly central to SpongeBob, but the moments when she gets to display the full power of her voice are some of the show’s most transcendent. You can hear it in the audience — there are literal gasps and shouts of approval when she sings. Watch the video above to experience Josey’s jaw-dropping vocals, but it doesn’t really do her justice. Hearing her sing live truly gives me chills every time, and that’s worth the price of admission alone.
The score is eclectic and exciting.
There are plenty of shows that dabble in a variety of musical genres, but SpongeBob really goes for it — hip-hop, emo, gospel, and, yes, even a sea shanty written by Sara Bareilles. It’s not just Bareilles: The show employed numerous big-name songwriters, including John Legend, the Flaming Lips, T.I., and Panic! At the Disco. Amazingly enough, the score isn’t an abrasive mishmash of different styles. While the songs themselves are unique — and often bear the distinctive feel of the artists who wrote them — they come together as a cohesive musical theater score. Despite all the cooks in the kitchen, there is a unifying SpongeBob sound, and it’s like nothing else on Broadway.
It’s a lot deeper than you’d think.
Listen, I can’t guarantee you will cry at SpongeBob: I don’t know your life. But what I do know is that there is a depth and a poignancy to this show that is surprisingly powerful and completely unexpected. At the heart of a fairly straightforward story about the residents of Bikini Bottom trying to thwart the end of the world by way of a nearby volcano are some startlingly relevant themes. Sandy is ostracized as a land mammal and blamed for the disaster — she’s essentially an immigrant in this community. Meanwhile, she’s the only one arguing for reason in contrast to the evil Plankton’s anti-science agenda. But beyond the uncomfortable parallels to real life, there is a genuinely moving moral about the power of unity, inclusion, and optimism. Go ahead, that’s worth shedding some tears over.