Director Tina Landau delivers a powerful message through bold production choices, proving the worth of taking risks on musical adaptations such as “The SpongeBob Musical.”
When a children’s show is adapted for the stage, one usually imagines actors clad in Mickey Mouse mascot-like costumes singing tunes from the show between loosely connected sketches. One would not expect a story of an impending doomsday causing a city to descend into chaos as our heroes question their self-worth through song.
“The SpongeBob Musical” takes the latter approach to prove children’s media can stay true to its source material while also being daring, inventive and appealing to young and old alike.
“The SpongeBob Musical” visited the Overture Center from Oct. 8 to the 13th, its third stop in the show’s North American tour. After first premiering in Chicago in 2016, it moved to Broadway for a performance series that earned 12 Tony nominations. This fresh cast proved the praise it earned in their Madison performances.
As necessary for any good musical, the show’s soundtrack stands on its own as incredible — each song is written by a high-profile artist. The number of musical influences is astounding, ranging from a modern pop ballad in “Simple Sponge” by Panic! At the Disco to the classic rock of “Bikini Bottom Boogie” by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and hip-hop beats in “When the Going Gets Tough” by T.I. But through the orchestration of Tom Kitt, “The SpongeBob Musical” retains a cohesive musical identity.
“The SpongeBob Musical” finds production value being serious in its silliness. Set pieces are made of equal parts pool toys and advance screen projections. The vibrant costumes range from found objects like traffic cones to Squidward’s convincing four-legged suit. And the sound design features something truly never seen before in musicals, a live Foley artist providing choreographed sound effects familiar to any cartoon fans.
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The new cast features a phenomenal display of talent. The full background ensemble proves themselves as vital to the show’s charm, transitioning effortlessly from citizens of Bikini Bottom to a field of jellyfish or a cult of sardines.
Each lead gets a moment to shine, with a breakout performance from Lorenzo Pugliese as the optimistic hero, SpongeBob. Cody Cooley as Squidward steals the second act in “I’m Not a Loser,” a dizzying tap dance performance that hits the core of the character’s desire to be accepted in the world.
It’s this ability for “The SpongeBob Musical” to tap into the heart of each character’s hopes and fears, while still being a delightful feast for the eyes and ears, that sets this show apart from other adaptations of children’s media.
As the citizens of Bikini Bottom face the impending undersea volcanic eruption, they give into fear and greed reminiscent of how many people feel in the real crisis of our modern day. SpongeBob becomes a hero through his ability to see the good in everyone, even during Bikini Bottom’s darkest days.