'SpongeBob Musical' delights with whimsical visuals, spirited cast

  • SpongeBob (Ethan Slater, center) convinces pals Patrick (Danny Skinner, left) and Sandy (Lilli Cooper) to save their Bikini Bottom home in "The SpongeBob Musical," in its world premiere at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

    SpongeBob (Ethan Slater, center) convinces pals Patrick (Danny Skinner, left) and Sandy (Lilli Cooper) to save their Bikini Bottom home in "The SpongeBob Musical," in its world premiere at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • The ever-optimistic SpongeBob SquarePants (Ethan Slater, center) celebrates a new day in Bikini Bottom in the Broadway-bound "The SpongeBob Musical" in its world premiere directed by Steppenwolf Theatre's Tina Landau.

    The ever-optimistic SpongeBob SquarePants (Ethan Slater, center) celebrates a new day in Bikini Bottom in the Broadway-bound "The SpongeBob Musical" in its world premiere directed by Steppenwolf Theatre's Tina Landau. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Squidward Tentacles (Gavin Lee, center) makes the most of his moment in the spotlight in "The SpongeBob Musical" in its world premiere at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

    Squidward Tentacles (Gavin Lee, center) makes the most of his moment in the spotlight in "The SpongeBob Musical" in its world premiere at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper, right) shows SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) the solution she's devised for Bikini Bottom's volcano problem in the Broadway-bound "The SpongeBob Musical" by writer Kyle Jarrow with music by Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, The Plain White T's and others.

    Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper, right) shows SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) the solution she's devised for Bikini Bottom's volcano problem in the Broadway-bound "The SpongeBob Musical" by writer Kyle Jarrow with music by Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, The Plain White T's and others. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

 
 
Updated 6/22/2016 12:00 PM

Never before has ocean detritus looked as beautiful as it does in "The SpongeBob Musical," the relentlessly exuberant new show inspired by the long-running Nickelodeon series chronicling the adventures of a plucky sea sponge and his assorted aquatic acquaintances.

Pool noodles and plastic cups, flip-flops and oil drums are among the flotsam and jetsam that comprise SpongeBob's Bikini Bottom home, a gorgeous underwater wonderland brilliantly imagined by set and costume designer David Zinn for the show's world premiere at Chicago's Oriental Theatre.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Zinn's witty, whimsical visuals -- including imaginative costumes that add a punch of color to the glittering sea green and aquamarine backdrop -- are among the delights of this Broadway-bound musical.

Conceived and directed by Tina Landau, the show features a droll, irony-free book by Kyle Jarrow that gently sends up blowhard politicians, money-grubbing capitalists and snarky rock stars.

The score -- arranged and orchestrated by Tom Kitt ("Next to Normal") and conducted with panache by music director Julie McBride -- includes songs by the Plain White T's, T.I., Panic! At the Disco, Yolanda Adams and John Legend among others. A montage of pop, hip-hop, gospel, electronica and rock, it includes Jonathan Coulton's exuberant opening number "Bikini Bottom Day" and the sweet, buoyant "Best Day Ever" by Andy Paley and Tom Kenny. The latter, according to 10-year-old Samantha, a SpongeBob expert who accompanied me to Sunday's opening, is a holdover from the TV show. Other highlights include Adams' gospel-tinged "Super Sea Star Savior" and a touching ode to friendship by Legend, "(I Guess I) Miss You," which is as close to a love song as "The SpongeBob Musical" gets.

The show is robustly sung by a spirited young cast. They make a splash, but it's not all smooth sailing. A David Bowie-Brian-Eno tune felt out of place, and a number by Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry was unintelligible. Moreover, subplots involving scheming restaurateurs and errant pirates threaten to capsize the sponge-saves-the-day narrative centered on efforts of the irrepressibly optimistic SpongeBob (charming newcomer Ethan Slater in a star turn) to prevent Mount Humongous from erupting and leveling his underwater burg.

For help he turns to pals Patrick (Danny Skinner), an affably dim starfish, and Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), a Texas scientist prone to folksy similes. Meanwhile the rest of the town's inhabitants pursue their own self-interests. Cranky co-worker Squidward (the terrific Gavin Lee, who stops the show with a tap number featuring a sea anemones chorus) seeks his moment in the spotlight, while villainous Plankton (Nick Blaemire) schemes to take down his rival Eugene Krabs (Carlos Lopez).

Landau brings a cartoon sensibility to this merry romp in the guise of Foley artist Michael Dobson and a wacky contraption that hurls giant lava balls onto Bikini Bottom, one of the many delightfully loopy visuals that make "The SpongeBob Musical" worth a dip.

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