By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Despite its having won a Tony Award for scenic design, The SpongeBob Musical appeared to be a lightweight entry on the season for Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts. It was, after all, based on a rather inane Nickelodeon Cable TV show that gravitated to mostly puerile interests.
But this latest Rivertown offering, while still catering to the tastes of the younger set, packs a wallop like a hammerhead shark. This Gary Rucker-directed effort has lots of surprisingly high production values and noteworthy performances that will have the kiddies and even some of those on Medicare laughing along with the show’s inventive designs and hilarious book.
Part of this is the care given by Rucker and his creative team in rendering the designs for this show. The other is the outstanding cast whose performances raise this from a mere curiosity to a bona fide hit.
Savannah Chaisson portrays SpongeBob, the little sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea. SpongeBob’s mind, like his TV image is, at best, two-dimensional. But as simplistic as he may be, SpongeBob is excessively kind and hopelessly devoted to his friends. This may be the key to understanding why he is such an alternative iconoclast.
Were SpongeBob to overthink things, we might care too little. But this is, after all, based on a kid’s cartoon series by Stephen Hillenberg, so the book by Kyle Jarrow is not going to deviate too far off the beaten sea bed. Jarrow does a good job of catering to the interests of the kids and still keeping it interesting to the older crowd. It’s still a kid’s show at heart and anyone expecting it to be revelatory or groundbreaking will be greatly disappointed.
While the titular role is pivotal, the other featured actors prove themselves as essential by rising far above the source material and giving serious performances to what might otherwise pass as simple parody. They are also given superb support from the choreography team handled by Belle Tudor, Frannie Buchtel, Katie Peck and Carrie Black.
Chloe Marie plays SpongeBob’s squirrel friend Sandy Cheeks, while Jonathan Thomas plays his best friend starfish Patrick Star. Both work with Chaisson’s character to save the undersea habitat known as Bikini Bottom from certain destruction.
High school senior Liam Gillen steals the show with his portrayal of Squidward Q. Tentacles. His “I’m Not a Loser” is the highlight of the second act and is replete with a chorus of superb backup dancers. It’s easy to see why Gillen will be calling Carnegie Mellon’s ivory halls his home next semester; he is one of only 12 freshmen accepted to their highly rated Musical Theatre program and locals should run to see this performance.
Ryan Nocito portrays SpongeBob’s boss Eugene Krabs, the owner of the Krusty Krab, who has a moment with his perplexed daughter Pearl (Kelly Laines) in Act I’s “Daddy Knows Best.”
All of this leads to the super villain of the work, Sheldon Plankton, the owner of the Krusty Krab’s alternative eatery portrayed with equal parts hubris and self-aggrandizement by Mitchell Kogan. Plankton’s plan of destruction for Bikini Bottom is assisted by his flirtatious computer Karen. Jordan Lawrence takes what would ordinarily have been a minor role and transforms it into a memorable performance. Lawrence, who played Sister Amnesia in Nunsense previously at Rivertown, continues to impress audiences with a spectacular voice and great comedy chops.
Two of the women standouts in the musical are Allee Peck as Mrs. Puff and Carli Collis as the Mayor of Bikini Bottom. Filling out the newer members of the cast in minor roles are Tadhg Long as Old Man Jenkins and Kirkland Green, who plays Larry the Lobster and Gary the Snail.
A succession of ensemble members play the remainder of the undersea creatures and the pirate fans of SpongeBob. Two of the major pirate roles are filled by Vatican Lokey, who opens both acts in his role as Patchy the Pirate, breaking the fourth wall every chance he has communing with the audience. Also playing several roles is Scott Sauber, who is also responsible for the superior lighting designs in the show.
Another aspect of the musical are the original songs turned in by a retinue of popular performers and originally conceived by Tina Landau on Broadway. Among those who contributed to the songwriting were They Might Be Giants, Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, Plain White T’s, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. With such songwriting talent on hand, there’s little doubt that these songs elevate the performances immensely. Additional lyrics were provided by internet sensation Jonathan Coulton and veteran Broadway composer and Pultizer Prize winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal).
Justin Blanchard handled the music direction for the show as well as arranging for the background and chorus work. Kudos to him and the other members of the creative team: Deann Sullivan, who worked to execute costume designs and to coordinate the many costume rentals for the show; scenic designer John F. Keenan; and video designers Marc Fouchi and Raleigh Lusignan. Fouchi and director Rucker also executed the sound designs.
With just one week left to catch this unexpectedly delightful and fun show, Rivertown has managed to surprise adults and captivate the younger theatre set.
The SpongeBob Musical continues at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts with an extra show on Thursday, May 18 in addition to shows on Friday and Saturday evening, all at 7:30 p.m. The final performance on Sunday, May 21, will be held at 2:00 p.m. For tickets call 504-461-9475 or click here.