I didn’t want it to end before I’d dropped on the deck and flopped like a fish. That’s how delightful Parkland’s production of The SpongeBob Musical is — you won’t want to leave. Musicals have to earn my trust and my time. I’m a theatre nerd but I’m definitely more play than musical but this is a musical that plays and it’s pure joy.
When community theatre comes together as it does in director Chelsea Collier’s hands, the result is magical. Combining the sparkling talents of community members, Parkland College students, and University of Illinois students on stage and in the band gives the production more bang for your buck. The world of Bikini Bottom and its famous inhabitant who lives in a pineapple under the sea will remind you what community spirit is all about.
I’m not burying the lede and I’ll get straight to it. The three best friends, Laramie Ziegler’s SpongeBob, Jerry Strain’s Patrick, and Jason Brooks Shaw’s Sandy are nothing shy of Broadway brilliant. I’m not exaggerating. Ziegler was born to play SpongeBob. The vocal and physical range Ziegler inhabits will not be contained by Central Illinois theatre. This one is destined for a world beyond Bikini Bottom so go see him now before you have to shell out $850 to sit behind the pit in Chicago or New York. Yes, he’s that good.
Playing his cone-headed starfish best friend Patrick is Jerry Strain, who, as the notes tell us, is Ziegler’s real-life best friend. I am not sure why knowing that makes it all the more special but it does and their on-stage chemistry will bring you to tears during John Legend’s soulful “(I Guess I) Miss You.”
Jacob Alfonso’s operatic Plankton, Haley Brown’s heartfelt Squidward, Ares Jordan’s magnetic Mr. Krabs, and Excellence Onalundula’s show-stopping Pearl captivate the audience as well with their dynamic voices and genuine stage savvy performances.
The music is spectacular. Literally. With original songs by John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, They Might Be Giants, Panic! At the Disco, Bowie & Eno (first names not needed), The Flaming Lips, and more, one might fear it’s disjointed and driven by the need for a hit single. But one would be wrong. The music creates the world and reveals character while sustaining the story. The on-stage presence of talented musicians, under the direction of Cheryl Forest Morganson, provides the energy and fuel to make you want to dance by the time they get to the climactic rendition of “Best Day Ever,” which Ziegler and company perform with exquisite precision.
Elliot Reza Emadian’s choreography, reminiscent of their stunning work in the U of I’s Lyric Theatre 2020 production of Latrelle Bright’s Cabaret, is elegant in its simplicity and collaboration with this extraordinary cast.
Sheri Doyle’s costumes, especially Mariah Smith’s Karen the Computer, add tremendous depth to the surreal carnival atmosphere on stage. Rob Perry’s lighting design and the multi-leveled set, designed by Molly Ilten-Fulan, pull you into the bubbly world of Bikini Bottom as soon as you enter the theatre.
I’m not gushy about musicals. There are a select few that I genuinely love because, as I said, I’m a stage play nerd. I enjoyed watching my own kids in local productions of such classics as Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof, but I probably only enjoyed them because I knew the kids in the show and I love theatre as an educational space. When I heard about The SpongeBob Musical back in 2016-2017, I rolled my eyes. Tired of the Disneyfication of Broadway and the musical world, even though this was Nickelodeon instead of Disney, I wrote it off as something I might see when I’m 80 and one of my kids takes me to see Cher impersonators doing a SpongeBob review in Vegas in 2047.
Photo by Brian Heaton.
I was wrong. You don’t have to be a fan of Nickelodeon’s absorbent and yellow and porous title character who has carried 13 seasons with his eternal optimism and indefatigable work ethic to love this musical. Like the show, friendship, heroism, goodness, and love of neighbor are at the center of this whimsical allegory of climate change. Sadly, the story is an all-too-familiar tale of fear-driven blame and finger-pointing in the face of unflinching scientific evidence of environmental destruction and its consequences. Even with the heft of that message, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll dance, and you’ll clap along because you can’t help but be absorbed by this delightful journey to Bikini Bottom.
Parkland’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre was packed with kids of all ages and it made for an even better theatrical experience. Little kids talking back to Patrick Star and laughing with Spencer Hazen’s giddy Patchy the Pirate is what makes live theatre the best of all worlds.
We need SpongeBob the hero, and we need The SpongeBob Musical at this time and in this place. It’s a show put on by a community for a community. It’s no spoiler to say that Bikini Bottom is saved from destruction and the diabolical plotting of Plankton and Karen the Computer by the love and commitment of three best friends, who all have special talents and unwavering love for each other. I know there are parents out there who didn’t want to let their kids watch SpongeBob on TV. I never truly understood that position because besides Lisa Simpson, SpongeBob is by far the most positive, upbeat, kind, and positive role model a kid could ever want. His earnest optimism defeats Squidward’s sarcasm every week, and in this perfect musical blending of these timeless characters inside a timely story, love and friendship win. Your heart will sing. Take your kids. Take your neighbors’ kids. Take your best friend. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to experience pure joy in the collective space of one of our most beloved theatres.