Review by Daz Gale
A cartoon favourite has travelled under the sea to hit UK shores for the first time as The Spongebob Musical washes up to tour all over the UK for the first time. A musical adaptation of an animated television show could be a hard one to get right so could this colourful, larger-than-life production ever manage to come across as anything more than just, well, simple?
For those who aren’t already familiar, he lives in a pineapple under the sea - Spongebob Squarepants first bounced on to our TV screens in 1999 entertaining generations of children (and adults) and spawning several movies along the way. The musical adaptation premiered in 2016 and headed to Broadway the following year. This UK tour marks the first time the show has been seen in the UK… sort of. A version of the show that aired on TV was actually filmed in the UK, but this is the first time Bikini Bottom has completely opened up for British audiences.
The premise of The Spongebob Musical sees Spongebob Squarepants and residents of Bikini Bottom very existence come under threat with the news a nearby volcano will erupt imminently destroying everything. Spongebob and his pals have to think fast to save the day and perhaps prove once and for all that he’s not just a simple sponge. Written by Kyle Jarrow, the musical effortlessly introduces audiences to the world of Spongebob, him and all the other characters, with an accessible ease making your previous knowledge of that world and the series unimportant. With a constant tone of family friendly fun, it never feels too terrifying for younger audience members and similarly never too childish for the *cough* older audience members. Full of funny lines and some hilarious visual gags, the whole thing is a complete joy.
Rather than have one composer of the songs in the show, The Spongebob Musical assembles some huge names from the world of pop and rock to each write a number for the show. Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend and Panic! At The Disco are among the instantly recognisable names – with their own inimitable musical styles seeping into the songs they have created. The calibre of these songs is as phenomenal as you might expect with opening number ‘Bikini Bottom Day’ a pleasurable earworm and ‘(Just a) Simple Sponge’ an undoubted standout.
How do you bring such a colourful show to life on the stage? Quite simply, it turns out. Steve Howells set design is glorious from the moment you set foot inside the theatre. Grand and consistently fun, it is always visually pleasing and is among the better designs I have seen for a touring production in recent years. Equally fun is Sarah Mercade’s costume design, allowing Spongebob to look sponge-esque without having to actually don a big square sponge. One great aesthetic among both the set and costume design are the use of discarded items you might find under the sea with plastic bottles and rubber gloves incorporated brilliantly.
Tara Overfield Wilkinson directs the whole thing beautifully, towing the balance between a full blown Broadway musical and panto so precisely, the voice never waivers thanks to impeccable choices on stage. Fabian Aloise’s choreography brings performance numbers to life in stunning fashion and is particularly spectacular on the bigger ensemble numbers. One production highlight is the gorgeous lighting from Ben Bull, constantly atmospheric and at times evoking a rock concert (helpful in certain performance numbers) while an inspired use of sound sees cast members visibly use certain effects to accompany fellow cast members – used in hilarious fashion with Squidward in particular.
A couple of star names have come together to take on some of these iconic characters. Pop Idol runner up Gareth Gates is delightful with his note-perfect turn as Squidward, enjoying a true showstopping moment with his big song and dance number ‘I’m Not A Loser’. RuPaul’s Drag Race UK star Divina De Campo proves she was born to perform on stage with a spectacular performance as Sheldon J, Plankton. Remarkably loveable in the villain-esque role, she is always a force to be reckoned with, threatening to steal the limelight with just the smallest movement anytime she is on stage.
Irfan Damani delights as Patrick Star with his duet with Spongebob ‘(I Guess I) Miss You’ among the highlights. Chrissie Bhima gives a fantastically sweet performance as Sandy Cheeks, making the most of a role that in other hands could have faded into the background somewhat. Similarly, Sarah Freer gets a couple of fine moments as Pearl Krabs as does Rebecca Lisewski as the Mayor. The Spongebob Musical is a show where all of the cast work their socks off with a truly incredible ensemble, each getting their own moments to shine. They include a criminally small turn as Karen The Computer for the always amazing Hannah Lowther and a great performance from Reece Kerridge as Old Man Jenkins.
Of course, there is one performance I haven’t mentioned yet – and that is for good reason. To step into the square pants of such an iconic character can’t be the easiest of tasks – you have to nail the voice, the mannerisms and essentially become the legendary sponge. This is no problem for Lewis Cornay who is astonishing in the role. Having seen Lewis in previous shows, I was already aware what a phenomenal talent he truly is – as Spongebob, he is better than ever. It can’t be underestimated how difficult it is to sing while doing an impersonation and not using your real voice. The way Lewis managed to blend the two was truly remarkable. Showcasing his beautiful vocals and unrivalled characterisation, his was a tour-de-force performance with impeccable comic timing. There really was nothing simple about his performance here – in fact, it was rather miraculous.
It may have taken a while to come to the UK but The Spongebob Musical was truly worth the wait. This show is pure joy in theatre form – I struggle to think the last time I left the theatre with such a huge grin on my face. Not just one for the children or one for the Spongebob die-hard fans, this is a musical with something in it for everyone. Expertly staged and astonishingly performed (particularly the title role), Spongebob was a surprising delight and one I’ll be looking to catch again in the near future.
The Spongebob Musical is on tour across the UK until 9th September including a season in London this summer. Full dates and tickets from https://www.spongebobstage.com/
Photos by Mark Senior