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The company of The SpongeBob Musical, with Lorenzo Pugliese as SpongeBob and Beau Bradshaw as Patrick Star.

Jeremy Daniel/Handout

  • The SpongeBob Musical
  • Written by: Kyle Jarrow
  • Songs by: Various artists
  • Genre: Musical
  • Director: Tina Landau
  • Actors: Lorenzo Pugliese, Beau Bradshaw, Cody Cooley, Daria Pilar Redus, Zach Kononov, Tristan McIntyre
  • Company: Nickelodeon
  • Venue: Meridian Hall
  • City: Toronto

rating

2 out of 4 stars

Pour yourself a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs, grab a juice box and settle down for the Saturday-morning-cartoon splendour of The SpongeBob Musical.

What, the concession stands in Meridian Hall (what we used to call the Sony Centre) don’t sell breakfast cereal? That’s a shame. This is the kind of goofy show that rides on waves of nostalgia and surges of sugar.

If, however, you don’t a) harbour cherished childhood memories of Nickelodeon’s long-running SpongeBob SquarePants series or, b) happen to be a child yourself, you may gradually get the sinking feeling that you’re watching a bubbly little children’s show overinflated to Broadway-spectacle proportions.

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Indeed, The SpongeBob Musical is Nickelodeon’s bid to follow Disney’s lead and turn one of its beloved animated properties into a Broadway hit. They didn’t do too badly, either – the original production opened to raves in 2017 and netted 12 Tony Award nominations. That’s a testament to all the big talent they’ve thrown at it, beginning with its conceiver-director, Tina Landau of Chicago’s esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre, and her creative team, many of them past Tony-winners.

Then there’s the score, provided by a flotilla of popular recording artists including Cyndi Lauper, The Flaming Lips, John Legend and Panic! At the Disco. Never mind that few of them come up with anything approaching their best work. I guess the undersea shenanigans of an animated sponge aren’t the stuff of inspiration.

For the unfamiliar, our eponymous hero (not a sea sponge but the square, synthetic kitchen variety) lives beneath the Pacific’s Bikini Atoll in the city of Bikini Bottom. Unlike the kitchen sponges that I use, he doesn’t have an abrasive side – the little dude is pure, sweet optimism, an invertebrate Candide. But in this Kyle Jarrow-penned adventure, his cheery outlook is sorely tested when he and his fellow Bottom-dwellers are threatened with extinction by a soon-to-blow volcano.

For the touring production playing Toronto, SpongeBob is embodied by a bouncy Lorenzo Pugliese, who looks similar to a blond Jimmy Fallon and excels at replicating the squeaky tones of the cartoon’s voice actor, Tom Kenny. Helping him save the day are his scientist sweetheart, the underwater-dwelling squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Daria Pilar Redus), and his BFF, the lovable slacker starfish Patrick (Beau Bradshaw).

Getting in the way is the one-eyed, one-celled villain-cum-fast-food-purveyor Sheldon Plankton (Tristan McIntyre). Sheldon has hatched a scheme to use the impending disaster to his advantage, which involves mass-hypnotizing the community into coveting his disgusting chum burgers.

Jarrow dutifully works in topical themes involving science-deniers and prejudice toward immigrants (Sandy’s from Texas) and tries for some mild satire of autocratic politicians and religious cults. Landau’s staging, meanwhile, takes a stab at capturing the zany, surreal nature of the cartoons.

In that, she’s greatly aided by scenic and costume designer David Zinn, who won the show’s sole Tony for his sparkly, iridescent set. Favouring imagination instead of elaborate effects, his found-object approach to the costuming and props allows for some witty touches – bouquets of pool noodles standing in for kelp, a huge pair of red boxing gloves serving as crab claws, etc. One of the better bits has SpongeBob’s gloomy neighbour Squidward (Cody Cooley) wearing an extra pair of legs (making him half a squid, I guess). Those spare limbs are put to nimble use in a fun tap-dance routine to a song by the quirky indie band They Might Be Giants.

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This is a non-Equity company full of raw young performers, most of whom were probably toddlers when SpongeBob made its debut back in 1999. All the same, they do a pretty good job. The stand-out vocalist is Méami Maszewski, whose Pearl the whale has a whale-sized voice, making her duet with her dad, the money-grubbing restaurateur Mr. Krabs (Zach Kononov), one of the highlights.

Still, whatever they may have said in New York, The SpongeBob Musical is too insubstantial – and, at two hours and 15 minutes, too long – to sustain an adult’s interest, let alone that of a child. If I could, I would have changed the channel.

The SpongeBob Musical continues to Dec. 22. (tolive.com)

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