Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The SpongeBob Musical – can science trump mayhem when trouble erupts in this submarine paradise? (Grand Opera House until Saturday 3 June)

Hold your nose and dive deep into the somewhat hallucinogenic underwater world of Bikini Bottom which is threatened by an imminent volcanic eruption. Fear is turning people towards making bad decisions and questioning good motives. Can a plucky trio make it to the second half to bring order to the panic, self-interested exploitation, and destructive powerplays?

At its best, The SpongeBob Musical is a madcap assortment of musical styles, colourful costumed underwater creatures, and a satirical take on capitalist business models, populist politics, media scepticism, blame culture, anti-science mentality and spooky prediction of how a society might react to a pandemic.

In its less impressive moments, SpongeBob becomes a gallimaufry of styles, crazy characters and trippy nonsense that don’t gel to deliver a coherent story or a consistent experience.

Cartoon watchers will spot favourite characters and recognise a couple of tunes amongst the wealth of new material by Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Panic! At The Disco and many more. Adults will raise an eyebrow and be careful to avoid mispronouncing some of the on-stage food joint names in front of young children in the audience.

A panoply of percussion lurks behind the The Krusty Krab fast food joint, augmenting the physical choreography of key cast members. Two of the costumed Electric Skate band members regularly step out from their separate booths to perform and act on stage. A toilet roll gag connects the dots around Covid for adults in the audience.

Divina De Campo is a bit lost playing the Chum Bucket proprietor Sheldon J Plankton, a schemer with a ‘big guy’ complex and a penchant for mass destruction, so a bit of a proxy for Putin if you’re overthinking the plot during one of the two show stops that temporarily halted proceedings on the first night of the Belfast run.

SpongeBob (played by the indefatigable Lewis Cornay) may find Patrick Star to be an unreliable friend, but Irfan Damani’s voice always impresses, particularly with Yolanda Adams’ gospel number Super Sea Star Saviour, accompanied by the full set of fanatical cultist Sardines. Sandy Cheeks the Texan Squirrel (Chrissie Bhima) is a good scientist and a great vocalist. But the really, whaley moments of wow come when Sarah Freer steps through the gears and brings Pearl Krabs to life every time she sings. The beautiful neon sponge choreography makes Just a Simple Sponge into a first act highlight (albeit slightly marred by Mr Krabs muted mic blocking out his interjections at the end of the number).

The second act is strong, opening with a pirate protest song that showcase Sam Beveridge and Eleanor Turiansky’s musical talents, and hitting its peak with Gareth Gates and his sea anemone chorus line deliver a great La La Land-esque moment of musical theatre in the second act with four-legged Squidward’s I’m Not A Loser.

On paper, the whole of this musical could be greater than the sum of its parts. There’s sufficient craziness in every aspect of the set, costumes, music, choreography, direction and Kyle Jarrow’s book to suggest that SpongeBob could be an ingenious and effervescent winner. Yet, even laying aside the technical issues that shouldn’t beset the remaining Belfast performances, for me the musical smouldered and failed to bubble up to the surface to match its theoretical potential.

The SpongeBob Musical continues its riot of nautical madness at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until Saturday 3 June. And don’t miss the merchandise stall where adorable Gary the meowing snail soft toys are on sale! 

Photo credit: Mark Senior

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