Review: 'The SpongeBob Musical' is a Genuine Joy Across Generations

“Sponge, you shall be dry again.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet

SpongeBob: It was a cartoon. I knew that much. But that was about all I knew before taking my seat in Grand Rapids Civic’s lovely Easter egg of a theater. To my right sat Hadley, my niece. She identified with Squidward, who, she told me, was a six-legged, depressive octopus with little patience for SpongeBob’s antics. It’s possible we weren’t the core audience.

Onto the stage came Patchy the Pirate (Jay Fischer). An ancient mariner, perhaps, here to warn us to stick to the safety of the shores? But no; instead, he set the stage for what was to follow: being transported to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom.

 The opening song, “Bikini Bottom Day,” quickly introduced the cast of characters. Among them were Patrick (TJ Clark), a dim starfish; the aforementioned Squidward (Jon Calkins) (“Another day, another migraine,” he complains); Sandy Cheeks (Noor Hassan), a squirrel from Texas who wears a suit allowing her to breathe; more. 

Including, of course, the titular character. SpongeBob Squarepants (Zachary Avery) is all architectural blond hair and manic optimism, the kind of guy who takes great pride in being employee of the month despite being the only employee on offer.

As I took in the bright colors, the clever costumes, and the improbably sculpted wigs–as I realized how perfectly animated the scene onstage was, in other words–it occurred to me that the show might actually be good. Then came the second song, a repurposed “No Control” (David Bowie and Brian Eno), and I let my reservations drift away.

The music is stuffed with contributions by pop and rock royalty, including Cyndi Lauper (“Hero Is My Middle Name”), Panic! At The Disco (who brought the yearning “(Just A) Simple Sponge”), The Flaming Lips (“Tomorrow Is”), Sara Bareilles (“Poor Pirates”), and more. It maybe shouldn’t work; it should sound like a mishmash of styles and voices. But, somehow, it results in a coherent whole.

The story is simple enough: a volcano’s coming eruption threatens the existence of Bikini Bottom and the lives of all its bonkers residents. As in a Stephen King novel, the threat exacerbates already existing divisions while drawing a small group of heroes together. My favorite of these heroes, and perhaps the only sane character in the show, was Sandy. Hassan played her perfectly.

She wasn’t alone in performing well. Calkins is wonderful as Squidward, all sourness and secret ambition. Cameron Larson’s terrific as Sheldon Plankton, bringing joy to his villainy. Alexa Wollney’s a powerhouse as Pearl, frustrated daughter and would-be backup singer to a boy band; she mugged gloriously and sang like a rock star.

Erin Robere, choreographer, deserves great credit for arranging movement that was joyful to watch on its own while staying true to character. I loved everything robot Karen (Kali Hollinshead) did, for instance. She looked like she’d walked in from an early 1960s vision of the future. Robere could be seen in the audience the night I attended, dressed like someone from a dystopian science fiction film, all his attention glued to the stage.

There were moments in the show (a friendship dance, for instance) that seemed to be gifts to fans of the show, landing harder than they otherwise might have. But–and it surprises me to say this–The SpongeBob Musical is more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Otherwise, it never would have worked for me. But it did work. It’s a bright, colorful, clever, and energetic show, free of cynicism and infused with goodheartedness. Recommended.

The SpongeBob Musical
Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
September 15 - October 8