SpongeBob Squarepants is a global phenomenon. Even if you have never watched an episode of the Nickelodeon cartoon that has reached over 170 countries, the chances are you’ll recognise the big yellow sponge with a toothy grin from somewhere, such is his popularity.
Since Disney brought Beauty and the Beast to the stage in the 1990s, a steady stream of animated characters have found a new life in musical theatre. Although the biggest successes in this area have tended to carry the Disney label, in recent times SpongeBob has been giving them all a run for their money. Featuring a long list of mostly original songs from artists such as Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie and John Legend, The SpongeBob Musical received critical acclaim on Broadway attracting 12 Tony Award nominations. As part of the UK premiere tour, Leicester Curve is transformed into the underwater town of Bikini Bottom, home to SpongeBob (played by Lewis Cornay), his pineapple home and an array of colourful friends.
Before we’re even properly acquainted with them however, there are rumblings that all is not well in Bikini Bottom. As news spreads that an underwater volcano is about to destroy their homes, residents are sent into a panic, a lockdown is imposed and a search for a way out of imminent destruction begins. As an inept Mayor (Rebecca Lisewski) ignores the scientific facts of the matter and SpongeBob’s boss Mr Krabs (Richard J Hunt) profiteers from the crisis, it all starts to feel strangely familiar; there’s even evidence of some folk hoarding loo rolls!
Along comes Plankton (played by Divina De Campo of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK fame) and his sidekick Karen the Computer (Hannah Lowther) who hatch a plot to hypnotise the town’s residents, whilst promising to transport them to safety in an escape pod. Rejecting the claims of a squirrel called Sandy (Chrissie Bhima) that science can provide an answer to their problem, the residents decide to invest in Plankton’s escape pod, which is to be funded by a concert organised by SpongeBob’s four-legged neighbour Squidward (Tom Read Wilson). Although at times doubting himself as just ‘a simple sponge’, it becomes clear that SpongeBob along with Sandy and best friend Patrick (a pink starfish played by Irfan Damani) are the only ones who can save the day.
There is a lot to impress in this energetic production, which combines powerful singing with impeccable physical characterisation across the board. The whole team operate as a slick ensemble, with most performers re-appearing again and again under a range of different guises ranging from scene shifters to sardines. The set is functional and bright and the costumes simple but effective, with Squidward’s ingenious four-legged outfit deserving a special mention. However, even die-hard SpongeBob fans may find it hard initially to recognise some of the characters, as their appearance is so different to their animated counterparts. Sound effects are used with skill to help create a cartoon nature, although an imbalance between band and singers means that at times words can become lost. The occasional late spotlight on opening night is a minor quibble in a production that puts huge demands on the technical team.
In a strong cast, De Campo as the scheming Plankton and Read Wilson as Squidward stand out. A highlight is Squidward’s showcase number ‘I’m Not a Loser’ during which he finds his feet in more ways than one. The star of the show however is the supremely talented Cornay as SpongeBob whose presence is quite simply magnetic. His expressive face, comic timing, physicality and astonishing voice take this production single-handedly to a whole different level.
The SpongeBob Musical plays at the Leicester Curve until Saturday 15th July as part of a national tour.