The cavernous Palace Theatre on Times Square is New York's equivalent to the London Palladium, having hosted vaudeville, solo performances by showbiz legends and original productions of classic musicals. It's currently unrecognisable however, having been transformed into the ocean floor city of Bikini Bottom for the musical version of the hit Nickelodeon TV cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.
The show has exploded onto Broadway in a technicolour, multi-levelled riot of neon Tiki-esque ‘sky flowers', fluorescent bubbles, outsized marine bric-à-brac and other fishy fabulousness. It is breathtaking to look at, and surely set and costume maestro David Zinn will be nominated for every design prize going this year. Kevin Adams (lighting) and Peter Nigrini (projection) show a similarly inventive lack of restraint, and the result is a production that, even at current Broadway prices, shows you exactly where your ticket money has gone.
Avant-garde theatre maker Tina Landau has joined forces with script writer Kyle Jarrow to bring this to the stage, resulting in a surreal extravaganza that is as bonkers as it is surprisingly coherent. It is true to the absurdist, anything-for-a-giggle spirit of the original, a show that should appeal to un-cynical adults as much as not-yet-cynical youngsters. It's wonderfully inventive, outlandish, off-the-wall, and with its theme of impending doom while elitist idiots tell everyone it's OK, it feels current.
While the tale of a good-hearted square sponge who lives in a pineapple with his meowing pet snail, setting off to save the world with his best mates (dim but lovable starfish Patrick and a karate-chopping, dome-dwelling Texan squirrel named Sandy Cheeks) is slight, the musical is still extremely engaging. That's due to the all-encompassing vision of Landau and team, and also because it adheres to the basic tenets of great musical theatre: from the scene-establishing opening tune (joyous "Bikini Bottom Day") to the 11 o'clock number "I'm not a Loser" (a tap-dancing crie de cœur from uptight Squidward - a magnificently camp turn from Brit Gavin Lee).
The score is an amalgam of specially written songs by a disparate group of artists including John Legend, Plain White T's, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper and Panic At The Disco. They meld together to make a consistent musical soundscape, the songs here are propulsive, heartfelt, daft, profound, exhilarating, genuinely theatrical.
The cast is sensational, delivering the kind of high octane, super-caffeinated work that this material needs: Danny Skinner is as huggable as he's smackable as clueless starfish Patrick, and Wesley Taylor is a comic delight as embittered, ambitious, one-cell organism Plankton, surprisingly present in big dance numbers despite his lack of stature, and indeed cells. Best of all, Ethan Slater as SpongeBob is making a glorious Broadway debut: he's hilarious, magnetic, athletic, slightly weird, with a virtuosically wide-ranging singing voice. He also encapsulates exactly what the SpongeBob fans will be looking for in their onstage hero.
An argument often levelled at recent musical productions is that they look a little cheap. Not so here. If anything, this is one of those rare spectacles that might benefit from being a little less lavish. Huge props and set pieces are sometimes paraded in front of us for literally seconds which becomes exhausting, even unnecessary. SpongeBob is truly gorgeous, and a defiant antidote to the minimalism of other current Broadway hits like Come From Away and The Band's Visit but there's a danger of feeling a bit sick.
But the finale is such an exhilarating amalgam of bubbles, streamers, glitter, and sheer joy, I still floated out of the theatre on air. This would work a treat at somewhere like the Dominion or the aforementioned Palladium. It's nuts, but gosh it's fun.
SpongeBob SquarePants runs at the Palace Theatre in New York, currently booking until September 2018.