Chicago has an established reputation as a major tryout town for Broadway musicals. Some become big New York hits ( The Producers, Movin' Out ), some are misses ( Big Fish, Sweet Smell of Success ) and some don't even make it in ( First Wives Club ).
One Chicago tryout that has the all makings to be an all-audiences smash is SpongeBob SquarePants The Broadway Musical. It made its world premiere last year at the Oriental Theatre with the slightly different title of The SpongeBob Musical.
Now some theater purists might moan and groan about yet another commercial corporate musical adaptation, especially one based upon the popular Nickelodeon cartoon TV series. But those who saw the SpongeBob musical know that lesbian director and Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau made certain that the show maintained its own vital and creative theatricality. So SpongeBob SquarePants doesn't at all come off like a by-the-numbers theme park show.
I checked in with SpongeBob SquarePants during a recent New York trip to see what other changes the show has undergone besides its new moniker. Let's just say that all the tweaks have only made the show stronger, timelier and truer ( SpongeBob actually wears pants now instead of shorts ).
Casting changes have been blessedly minor ( Brian Ray Norris is now Eugene Krabs ), so New York audiences get to revel in the champion chameleon-character skills of the extremely talented ensemble. They collectively buoy each other up, especially Ethan Slater who wows with amazing physicality and pathos as the never-ending enthusiast title sponge.
Also emerging with a stronger profile are Lili Cooper as the bad-ass scientist squirrel Sandy Cheeks, Gavin Lee as the uptight Squidward Q. Tentacles ( hilarious as ever in his multi-leg costume and tap dancing ) and Danny Sknner as the not-too-bright starfish Patrick Star.
David Zinn's psychedelic set depicting the underwater town of Bikini Bottom may feel a tad squeezed-in on Broadway, but it still bursts out beyond the proscenium to make the Palace Theatre into a tropical paradise. Expect expect the yet-to-open Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville to receive unfavorable comparisons.
Zinn's neon-bright costumes also help to make SpongeBob a constantly eye-popping visual spectacle, as do the flashy lighting design of Kevin Adams and the precision projection designs of Peter Nigrini.
The current political climate has made Kyle Jarrow's zany book more relevant. Its plot hinges on how townsfolk become distrustful anti-science xenophobes when faced with an impending disaster ( here an underwater volcano eruption ). This helps to ensure that the musical isn't all fluff, or as an occasionally jumbled showcase for celebrity songwriters like Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Sara Bareilles and more who have all contributed peppy pop tunes for the score.
SpongeBob SquarePants is an undeniable charmer, with all of its theatrical spectacle both grand and simple. So if you're looking for a guaranteed show for fun, you can't go wrong with this musical and its very absorbent hero.
Visit SpongeBobBroadway.com for more information.
Broadway isn't just devoted to shows that feed on corporate Hollywood. "Snob appeal" shows, frequently imported from London, have been known to brave the treacherous commercial waters of Broadway, too.
One current candidate is Claire Van Kampen's Farinelli and The King. It originated at the candlelit indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse attached to Shakespeare's Globe in London.
This play with music is based upon the interesting historical relationship between the mentally unstable King Philippe V of Spain ( 1683-1746 ), and the superstar Italian opera castrato Carlo Boschi, who became famous with the stage name of "Farinelli." The latter confounded his fans by giving up his career to become King Philippe's personal music maker.
Two-time Tony Award-winner Mark Rylance ( and Van Kampen's husband ) is a joy as the batty Philippe. Meanwhile, Farinelli is split into two performers: Sam Crane for dialogue and countertenor Iestyn Davies to sing Baroque opera arias.
While this staging device by director John Dove has the potential to confuse, Van Kampen attempts to explain it away by having Farrinelli bemoan his duality of a private life versus the in-demand persona of a stage star.
The enjoyable performances all around ( especially the leading men ) make the play worth your time. Also quite good are Melody Grove as the noble Queen Isabella and Colin Hurley as the sarcastic theater manager John Rich.
As a probing look into the notion of whether or not music has the power to heal, Farinelli and The King doesn't quite pass muster. It would also have been more interesting if Van Kampen had framed the play with higher dramatic stakes instead of just offering a pleasant stroll of a script.
Yet the fine performances and antique atmospherics are all undoubtedly enjoyable and sophisticated. Since it all looks like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been imported to Broadway ( candelabras included ), consider it all a savings from actually crossing the pond to London.
Farinelli and The King continues in a limited run at New York's Belasco Theatre through March 25. Visit FarinelliAndTheKingBroadway.com for more information .