Blame. Follow. Exploit. Control. A serious commentary on society today.
Firstly, you need to know what you’re in for. Essentially, it’s for kids. Millennial fans in the audience on opening night may have expected something made more for their grown-up selves. But this is a retelling of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants TV series so expect silliness and ludicrous laughs from surrounding children. It’s a panto-esque spectacle of sparkles, bubbles, and wholesome fun.
Stephen Hillenburg’s Bikini Bottom universe splashed onto our screens in 1999. The show created a pop culture of catchphrases and memes, merch and a global fan base. Nickelodeon announced its transformation into a Broadway musical in 2015 and it was named in 2017’s ‘Best of Broadway’ lists on broadway.com, BuzzFeed, Forbes and more. It earned 12 Tony Award nominations and won ‘Best Scenic Design of a Musical’.
A unique selling point of the show is that it features original songs written by none other Davie Bowie, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and many more.
Under the direction of Tara Overfield Wilkinson, the UK’s tour of The SpongeBob Musical did not swim over the harsh reality of the plastic and waste that is ruining Earth’s beautiful waters. It dives deep into a series of home truths about the damage we’re causing to our planet and the greed and hypocrisy of the general public. Wilkinson also emphasised messages around the effect of racism and discrimination when Sandy Cheeks (Chrissie Bhuima) is isolated from society for being a land creature. Despite such serious subject matter, the show’s messages are decorated in bright costumes of crazy design, and well-known quotes, character traits and sound effects from the series.
Plastic and man-made objects have become a part of the everyday lives of sea life in Bikini Bottom. Boy band Electric Skates wore accessories made from glow sticks, straw mohawks, plastic cup hats and fishing nets as clothing. Many aspects of costumes and scenery used neon colours, highlighting an unnatural feel to the seabed. Finer details were educational if you looked for them. The Krusty Krab menu listed ‘Coral bits’ in size small, small, and small – a reference to the decline of coral reefs.
Under the surface, Bikini Bottom represents the state of the environment and society through a series of metaphors. While it’s full of joyful tunes, under the surface, The SpongeBob Musical references the Covid-19 pandemic (cue frantic guy running across the stage with a bunch of toilet rolls). There are plenty of sarcastic references that made audiences laugh about the government being trusted to handle the in-show crisis of a volcano of plastic bottoms about to erupt and destroy the town.
The show highlights the "blame, follow, exploit, control" culture that came about during the pandemic. The mayor (government) attempts to control the media, the media blames the greed of business owners (Mr Krabs) the business owners exploit the public, the public idolises and follows celebrities (depicted as the sardines placing faith in Patrick Star for no obvious reason). It commented on how the general public was willing to spend their money on luxuries and material items such as Krabby Patties at a time when the world is apparently going to end, rather than donate to worthy causes, such as an escape pod that will save the entire town.
It's a remarkably inventive musical that set designer Steve Howell has embraced wholeheartedly. He plunged into the crazy undersea world and created an environment rich in colour, texture, and light. Recycled items were used to create many elements of the scenery and props, supporting Wilkinson’s vision.
Choreography by Fabian Aloise serves the characters, expressing their personalities and interests. The movement of Sandy Cheeks in ‘Chop to the Top’ was a particular delight, which included martial arts and cowboy references. Neon sponges floated impressively around SpongeBob in ‘Just a Simple Sponge’ (written by Panic! At the Disco), and dancers relied on each other to create a sea-like wave effect.
Musical supervisor Mark Crossland and his band members were onstage for the entire performance, dressed appropriately, of course. They were a joy to watch conducting and playing in character. Songs were fun and catchy and it was highly amusing and satisfying when actors created sound effects on stage such as Gary's meow, Squidward’s walk, and Mr Krabs' claws clattering together. Act two particularly brought much joy to this audience with the famous dolphin sound to cover up bad language, the French narrator’s “10 minutes laterrr” and Gary the snail’s meow.
Lewis Cornay made a fantastically energetic SpongeBob with his notable vocal athletics to keep that perfect Spongey tone. And Patrick Star (Irfan Damani) did a lovely job of replicating the series’ depiction of the character, with an incredible singing voice to top it off. Bhima as Sandy Cheeks was loveable and animated. And Tom Read Wilson as Squidward Q Tentacles is perfection with his constantly aghast facial expressions, brilliant vocals, and hilarious legs. Sarah Freer has phenomenal vocals and sass as Pearl and Divina De Campo as Plankton was a great casting choice, again with excellent vocals and an effortlessly devious side.
I only wish more was made of the SpongeBob theme tune, inviting the audience to sing along from the start of the famous intro.
It’s a good running time for children and parents, finishing at just after 9pm.
See The SpongeBob Musical at Curve until this Saturday.