Spongebob’ makes a pineapple under the sea incredibly appealing

I won’t lie to you, I walked into a performance of The Spongebob Musical at the Oriental Theatre thinking that it’d be fun, thinking that my kid would have a belly laugh or two and thinking I’d spend the entire evening wondering if the enjoyment of Nickelodeon products has a shelf life.

If you go

Runs through July 10

Oriental Theatre

24 W Randolph St, Chicago



I still won’t lie to you, I walked out of that performance certain I had just seen a show that the whole darned family would love (and for which the belly laughs wouldn’t be reserved for the Under-4 set).

Its star-studded pedigree certainly doesn’t hurt. Directed and co-conceived by Steppenwolf’s Tina Landau, with a hilarious book by Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant), The Spongebob Musical also boasts a score that you’ll immediately want to hear again on the drive home. (I am one thousand percent serious. The songs are penned by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the Flaming Lips, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, The Dirty Projectors, Panic! At The Disco, Plain White T’s, T.I., Jonathan Coulton, They Might Be Giants and, oh yeah, a guy called David Bowie.)

The story opens with the square yellow guy himself in his pineapple under the sea, having the best day of his life (yet again). The townspeople of Bikini Bottom are introduced in a similarly adorable and zippy fashion, and before long, you find yourself rooting for this highly improbable village of underwater Everymen (and women and aquatic creatures). But when a volcano threatens everything the citizens hold dear, it’ll take a brave–and utterly managerial material–sponge guy to save the day. (Also an affably lazy pink starfish and a Texas squirrel on a scientific research trip. As you do.)

I expected to like this show. I didn’t expect to adore it. From a killer set (that’s part DayGlo, part pinball machine and all tiki lounge) to vocalists with insane range, this witty production is worth every clamshell. Each and every cast member is sheer perfection and plays their aquatic antics to the hilt. Gavin Lee’s Squidward Tentacles has a spectacular–and show-stopping–classic Broadway-esque number, complete with a tap dancing chorus line. Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks the scientific squirrel (who invents the machine to save the day, I might add) is superb, delivering twangy dry asides when not too busy soaring through octaves and Danny Skinner as Patrick Star is an adorably squishy and slightly obtuse foil. But it’s Ethan Slater’s Spongebob who delivers an incredible amount of heart into a character who could have easily traded on his popularity, instead infusing him with compassion, self-doubt and exceptional loyalty.

Yes, I’m still talking about Spongebob Squarepants.

When you, as a world-weary parent, find yourself genuinely rooting for a chortling character made of neon yellow sponge (and wishing you could give him a squelching hug at the end of his journey), that’s some serious stage magic right there.

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