The Great White SquarePants

The Great White Way? With the Tonys looming and "SpongeBob" and "Mean Girls" leading the pack, Broadway looks like Nostalgia Lane

NEW YORK – Staged with nonstop brio by Tina Landau, and adorned with a phantasmagorical set and Technicolor costumes, deliriously energetic performers and a peppy but largely forgettable pop music score by hitmakers ranging from Aerosmith to John Legend to Lady Antebellum, SpongeBob SquarePants is yet another lucrative Broadway show drawn from a pop-culture phenom in another medium. In this case, it’s a long-lived cartoon series on TV’s Nickelodeon network.

The show exemplifies one of two kinds of pop-culture nostalgia going head to head in a Broadway season that aims to keep its aging Baby Boomer audience happy – while luring their adult children and grandchildren in, too.

On one end of the generation spectrum you have some well-regarded revivals of golden-era Broadway shows many Boomers grew up watching with their parents, or at least hearing on the family hi-fi (back when record players weren’t especially hip, just ubiquitous). Those can be fond memories, triggered by the well-reviewed mountings of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel by director Jack O’Brien, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady staged by Bartlett Sher, and Jerry Zak’s take on Hello, Dolly! (which actually opened last season, with Boomer favorite Bette Midler in the lead).

Also, for the lucky few who can score tickets, there’s nostalgia attached to aging rock legend Bruce Springsteen’s smash one-man show, and even some ‘70s glitter memory-dust sprinkled on the tepidly received jukebox disco-tuner, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

The company in Broadway’s bright, splashy “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Photo © Joan Marcus

Throwback fare that appeals to their offspring, the Gen-Xers and Millennials is also well-represented by SpongeBob SquarePants and new movie makeovers of Mean Girls and Frozen. And the sole new hit drama on Broadway this season? Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a dramatization that’s a sequel to the wildly popular J.K. Rowling Harry Potter novels – especially beloved by droves of Millennials and their kids.

A galvanic, game-changing original musical hit like Hamilton may come along once or twice in a decade. But anyone born past, say, 1970 belongs to a “spinoff” generation of still-young and newly middle-aged adults accustomed to a steady flow of remakes, remakes of remakes, and repackaged pop culture touchstones in all formats. Hell, we’re all in that bag now, and so prone to retro-lust (for stuff we adored as kids) that there’s not much room or commercial daring for the new. (Especially new dramas, but that’s another story…)

The 2018 Tony Awards (scheduled to be handed out in a June 10 telecast on CBS; the full nominee list, including Portlander Hailey Kilgore’s nod for best leading actress in a musical in the revival of Once on This Island, is here) are heavily dominated by blasts from the past, reconfigured and/or repackaged for the present. Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants lead the pack of nominees with a dozen nods apiece. Revivals of Angels in America – another generational touchstone, which debuted on Broadway 25 years (yikes!) ago – and Carousel each scored 11 nominations.

Recently I saw several of the successful, Tony-nominated, back-to-the-future new musicals, spun off from three different media – SpongeBob and Mean Girls from the Millennial way-back machine, and something a bit different (refreshingly so) in the screen-to-stage gem, The Band’s Visit (which also has 11 Tony nods).

Danny Skinner as Patrick Star, Ethan Slater as SpongeBob, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks in “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Photo © Joan Marcus

At a recent Palace Theatre performance of SpongeBob it was clear I was out of a certain loop. There were spurts of delighted laughter and clapping for characters and antics I simply had no reference point for.

It should not have surprised me. This is a musical based on the highest-rated show in that child-oriented Nickelodeon network’s history. The series is still on the air, so presumably many children in the crowd had tuned in. And so had many happy-looking Millennials (alone or with child) who grew up watching the adventures of the title character – a grinning yellow sea sponge whose friends are other amiable creatures from the deep.

A juvenile attachment to the source material may be one reason to enjoy this splashy, vivacious musical, but there are others. David Zinn’s plastic-fantastic costumes and briny Rube Goldberg-esque sets are eye-popping and inventive. Adding aural zip is Mike Dobson. Parked up in a visible balcony box, and surrounded by percussion instruments, he provides a myriad of sound effects for the show.

And with a human cast that captures the bouncy spirit (if not the sketchpad look) of the cartoon figures, the musical conjures a world of hijinks and fluorescent wonders in the fictional oceanic community of Bikini Bottom. There the ever-perky SpongeBob (played by tireless dynamo Ethan Slater) cavorts with such pals as a tap-dancing squid, a golden-throated squirrel and a dufus starfish sporting a Hawaiian shirt. The plot (timelier than expected, given the current Hawaii situation): A nearby volcano is about to erupt, unless the sea creatures can band together and stop it up. (Spoiler alert: they can, and do.)

What really makes this inspired nonsense, rather than just nonsense, is the visual creativity on steroids. Still, it’s a triumph of style over substance – though the spectacle is delightful and the upbeat mood infectious.

The company of “Mean Girls” on Broadway. Photo © 2017 Joan Marcus

Mean Girls, embarking on what promises to be a long residence at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre, strikes a different chord for the audience members (predominately female) who loved the sharply drawn, Tina Fey-scripted movie version as teens and tweens.

The film came out in 2004, and the musical presumes that nothing much has changed about high school angst since then. There are still top-girl cliques like The Plastics, introduced “as the prettiest poison you’ve ever seen” by their venal glam queen bee Regina. (She’s played by Taylor Louderman, who has the role down from her shiny blonde locks to her jaded smirk to her scarily high heels).

If anything today there’s arguably more adolescent peer pressure to conform, and ways to bully, which the show (also written by Fey) nods to with the characters’ updated use/abuse of cellphones and social media. There are still many kids who won’t or can’t conform to the mainstream teen prototype, because they’re gay, artsy, foreign-born or all the above. And there’s still some joy to partake in the usual moral victory of stories like this one, where the merciless diva gets a comeuppance from some of the outcasts she torments – in Mean Girls, they are Erika Henningsen as new-kid-in-school Cady, Barrett Wilbert Weed as boho artist Janis, and Grey Henson as wisecracking gay pal Damian.

Fey’s repartee is snappy, the score by Jeff Richmond (music) and Nell Benjamin (lyrics) frisky and propulsive. And given that Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon; Aladdin) directed and choreographed, the whole shebang whizzes along like the gleaming Porsche a filthy rich top girl like Regina would tool around in.

Mean girls, from left: Erika Henningsen (Cady Heron), Ashley Park (Gretchen Wieners), Taylor Louderman (Regina George), Kate Rockwell (Karen Smith). Photo © 2017 Joan Marcus

Mean Girls is a veritable hit, brimming with actor-author-screenwriter-Saturday Night Live alum Fey’s usual mingling of snark and heart. And compared to last season’s more angst-ridden, still-running teen musical smash Dear Evan Hanson, which adds suicide, mendacity and shame to the high school outcast theme, it’s a real upper for a highly responsive Broadway audience. The night I attended the place was as packed with mothers and adolescent girls as the girl-empowered Wicked still is, a block away at the Gershwin Theatre.

But is there another society as addicted to youth culture tropes as our own? And for as long into adulthood? Slick and diverting as it is, Mean Girls is a not so distant, more broadly comical cousin of the John Hughes youth movies of the 1980s, like Pretty in Pink and 16 Candles, and TV series like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, in which the in-crowd of beauties and “richies” torments nicer, less privileged, and nerdy kids – who, in the end, triumph by rejecting the shallowness of those in the arrogant/affluent cliques. (Cady wins the heart of the school’s hunky football hero only after she stops trying to imitate Regina and the Plastics.)

Mean Girls is an update, with a feminist backbone. But it’s still a fable that posits high school as the contained and impermeable center of the universe, with a brutal caste system but a more satisfying settling of scores – and none of the fear of gun violence and economic disparities that plague public schools today.

The grownups enter the room: Adam Kantor, Bill Army, and Sharone Sayegh in “The Band’s Visit.” Photo: Matthew Murphy/2017

The Band’s Visit may not be the Broadway musical teenagers clamor to see, but it could give them a memorable glimpse into a world beyond their own and well worth visiting.

There isn’t much of a pop culture hook here. The show on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre was adapted by notable American playwright Itamar Moses and composer David Yazbek (The Full Monty) from an award-winning 2007 film by Israeli director Eran Kolirin. Though critically lauded, the movie had only art house runs in the U.S. And it was disqualified from being nominated for a best foreign film Academy Award because more than half the dialogue is in English.

That dialogue, on stage and screen, consists of mostly simple phrases of broken English, as Israeli residents, and a group of Egyptian musicians who have mistakenly strayed into an inert Negev Desert village, attempt to communicate with one another across a linguistic and cultural divide.

The musicians are solemn, powder-blue uniformed members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, invited to perform in Petah Tikva. But they mistakenly wind up in a place called Bet Hatikva where they are at first grudgingly aided by a café owner, Dina (a radiant, wary Katrina Lenk). Gradually, however, the gulf between Arabs and Jews in this fractious part of the world is bridged by common decency, and by a deep-seated loneliness that Dina and the band’s dignified and melancholic leader Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub, though I saw his excellent understudy Dariush Kashani) quietly discover they share.

This is that rare Broadway event that manages to make sparseness and subtlety, and general unfamiliarity with the source material, a virtue. The Band’s Visit unfolds on a minimal set, over a single evening, and without dramatic swells or political messaging. Yazbek’s beautiful score is witty and ruminative, and central to the notion that music is a shared language that speaks eloquently.

Making music in “The Band’s Visit,” from left: George Abud, Harvey Valdes, Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Garo Yellin. Photo: Matthew Murphy/2017

In one song, Dina rhapsodically recalls, as a child, listening to the thrilling voice of beloved Egyptian chanteuse Umm Kathoulm over the radio. The band’s amorous trumpeter and Chet Baker fan Haled (Ari’el Stachel) croons advice to a young lovelorn Israeli in a sensuous ballad: (“..Not break the ice/You melt the ice…”) And after watching the band members tote around their instruments we finally get a rich earful of their virtuosity in a rousing epilogue that mixes brass with such indigenous Middle Eastern instruments as the stringed oud, and the percussive darbouka and riq.

There is little room on Broadway for serious new plays anymore. But there should always be space for a musical as thoughtful and genuinely heartening (without being cloying) as The Band’s Visit. Alongside the flashier, youth-centered and familiar Broadway offerings, it is blessedly divergent and (dare I say?) mature.

 

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