Updated: Aug 8
Bringing SpongeBob to life on stage in Laguna Beach
By Eric Marchese
Live theater, as we all know, can wondrously transport us to a world completely unlike that of real life. For a handful of hours, audiences can be in the presence of fantastic, fable-like characters whose dreams and aspirations very often mirror our own.
“SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” is a great example of how live musical theater can create a fantasy world that draws us in and gives us a different way of looking at ourselves and others – or perhaps reminds us to be kind and fair toward those around us.
The 2016 musical not only does that; it also transfers a beloved animated world to the realm of musical theater.
The show premiered in Chicago in June, 2016, opened on Broadway in late 2017, was hailed by critics, and garnered 12 Tony nominations in 2018.
NoSquare Theatre’s new production brings SpongeBob and his pals to Orange County, giving fans a chance to see the acclaimed show, which was originally co-conceived, adapted for the stage and directed by playwright and director Tina Landau and its book is by rock musician Kyle Jarrow.
Director Ella Wyatt said that unlike most Broadway musicals, where one or two composers and lyricists write the entire score, “SpongeBob” features original songs by various artists. The short list of those whose music can be heard includes Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, David Bowie, Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and the pop group Panic! at the Disco.
Wyatt said that feature makes the score “totally different from Disney” and other similar musicals.
“One song has more of a country feel,” she said. “One is a hip-hop number. One is a typical musical theater showstopper with tap dancing.” The show, she said, has every kind of musical genre, “and that makes it really unique in a lot of ways. Somehow, they all work together.”
Wyatt said one of the keys to making this multifaceted musical approach work is that “each song really goes with the character who sings it.” NoSquare patrons will hear the score performed live each night by an onstage six-piece rock band that includes and is led by the show’s music director, Roxanna Ward.
Wyatt says she wasn’t initially a SpongeBob fan. “I had just aged out of it when the cartoon became popular. When this show first came out, it had no appeal to me. I had seen some of the SpongeBob cartoons and even one of the movies, and while I didn’t hate it or anything, I definitely didn’t think it needed a musical. I thought ‘why even make this a musical?’ Little spurts (of the character) work in a cartoon, but I do not want to sit through two hours of SpongeBob.”
Wyatt said her students (she teaches high school) helped change her mindset.
“I started hearing some of the music from my high school students, and the music is really good. It’s catchy and with depth.”
That got Wyatt through the front door, so to speak – enough to prompt her to read the script.
“I was also really drawn to the relevance of the story in today’s world,” she relates. “The story deals with blaming other groups for problems in the world and with the mob mentality. I’d say a definite theme is people coming together to make the world work and make things happen, something which our society is lacking.”
“It’s important to point out that this story is incredibly heartfelt and relatable to most people,” Wyatt notes – not just children, teens and young adults. “It deals with themes of facing your fears, believing in yourself, and standing up for what’s right, while also touching on difficult issues of racism, mob mentality, media sensationalism, and ‘othering’.”
Wyatt said she got exactly what she was looking for in her cast of primarily young adults and college students. The show has eight principal characters and a dozen supporting players, some of who carry as many as five roles.
Wyatt said she found the most significant challenge to be “creating a cartoon world that isn’t too cheesy.” She said she and music director Ward, choreographer Sabrina Harper and costume designer Brigitte Harper “have done many projects (before) and we were constantly on the phone and talking about how we want the show to look and how each musical number will go.”
“You’re not gonna see anyone dressed up in a fish. The costumes are similar to a cartoon but in human form – for example, for the pufferfish character, no one is dressing up like a fish, but the costume definitely still has elements that remind you it’s a cartoon.”
Despite avoiding the over-the-top look of a cartoon, Wyatt said the show “is definitely still bright and vibrant like you’ll get in a cartoon.”
Also intimately involved in the creation of a live show based on animation were set designer Sammi Wallschlaeger, lighting designer Blake Huntley and sound designer Mitch Bahnsen.
Wyatt says that Wallschlaeger, her sister, works in Los Angeles as a production designer for film and television, and that the pair “were really inspired by David Zinn’s design for the original show.”
“Zinn mentioned wanting everything to be made up of things that fell to the bottom of the ocean. We’re going for that kind of idea mixed with a Party City store.” Complementing that look are Huntley’s lighting and Brigitte Harper’s “incredible” costumes, which “add to that cartoon world.”
Wyatt said Bahnsen’s sound work and the work of Joe Joe Lieber combine to create a unique sound scheme. Bahnsen, she said, “has created some of the pre-recorded sound effects and is doing the mics and sound mixing.” Running the Foley sound effects board, Lieber “is creating many of the sound effects live every night” – for example, she said, “the squeaky sounds SpongeBob makes when he walks.”
The result is a show that has what Wyatt calls “a live sound effects element that is unlike anything I’ve ever done in a show before.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical’
No Square Theatre
384 Legion Street, Laguna Beach
July 28 - August 13
(949) 715-0333, www.nosquare.org