Spongebob Squarepants picks up the diversity torch that Groundhog Day left when it closed in September. Like the August Wilson’s most recent inhabitant, the cast is made up of actors of many sizes, ages and ethnicities. There’s even an ensemble sea creature I would guess is trans, although it is never mentioned or even matters.
What hits the audience so clearly from the very first song is that we are seeing a real-looking world populated by real-looking people. And fish. And crustaceans.
Full disclosure: when I’m seeing a show, one of the first things I think about in the opening number is “coverage.” As in, I look at the cast and try to figure out which ensemble members are covering which principal tracks. But in Spongebob, I didn’t think about that at all. I was just swept into the world of Bikini Bottom, full of strange, humorous and relatable creatures. You know, like how theatre is supposed to be.
Even the actors playing the ensemble are diverse. The 15-person ensemble includes artists with a wide array of talents, from Kyle Matthew Hampton (a professional skateboarder) to Jai’len Christine Li Josey (an 18-year-old Jimmy Award winner making her Broadway debut). We get to see Curtis Holbrook’s Xanadu-esque roller skating skills, Jon Rua’s electric movement and Vasthy Mompoint’s comedic genius. The production embraces the individual actors’ strengths and talents, and we as an audience get to bask in the glow of watching them shine so brightly.
The thrill of David Zinn’s set and costume design is that they enhances each member of the ensemble’s individuality. He builds on the thrilling world he created in last season’s Amelie, substituting the cacophony of a French hoarder’s apartment for the cacophony of an overstuffed toy store. Time and again, he dresses the ensemble in surprising and inventive costumes. It’s like an Easter egg hunt to look at the production because the harder you look, the more you appreciate it. I’m not sure what heaven looks like, but I hope it’s as full of childlike wonder as a David Zinn production.
Also, like the aforementioned Groundhog Day ensemble, the Spongebob Squarepants ensemble spends almost the entire production onstage. I can only imagine how exhausting the show must be to perform because almost every single number features the ensemble in some form. Their poor phones must be so lonely offstage, because I can’t imagine they have any time to check them during the show.
Kudos go to choreographer Christopher Gattelli for his spot-on staging. More than any other musical stager working on Broadway today, Gattelli can see what a song needs to land with the audience. Whether it be an exquisite display of puppetry like “Hero Is My Middle Name” or a ladder-scaling thrill like “Chop to the Top,” he brings each number to the audience in its most perfect of forms.
Even the musical staging reflects the unique personalities that inhabit Bikini Bottom. Sure, we get a perfectly coordinated kick line in the bring-down-the-house tap number “I’m not a Loser.” But in the gospel-inspired “Super Sea Star Savior” and the Act II opener “Poor Pirates,” each ensemble member gets to dance with their own flair, like a real person. Or a real pirate.
In the show’s grin-inducing finale, the cast directly addresses the audience with the titular cartoon’s famous theme song. As they toss blow-up pool balls at us, we can see the organic smiles on the actors’ faces. And as they look us with open hearts thanking is for participating in an evening of live theatre, we can do nothing but return the gesture.