Milwaukee’s foremost theater for young people, First Stage, is currently performing The SpongeBob Musical For Young Audiences at the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. And there is no way that the young (or even older) audiences aren’t going to have fun. And yes, there is some turmoil and some danger but we all know that SpongeBob SquarePants to solve the problem and the delight is watching him come up with a solution.
Now, before we get too far into the musical, performance, or cast, let me mention the stage set. First Stage always amazes with how much they get our of their sets and how they repurpose common objects in props that we easily accept as the correct time or place or environment. And they have done that time and time again all season…but in SpongeBob they have completely outdone themselves. Waiting for the play to start, you sense that we are underwater as the flickering stage lighting gives us that feeling of light shimmering on water but we are under the surface. Pool noodles become sea weed, kelp, and the stem of the world’s most famous pineapple. And if you look carefully you’ll see the huge abandoned Wisconsin license plate (first three letters: FST), a surfboard with a huge bite out of it, and other bits of flotsam and jetsam that indicate we are in fact, looking into Bikini Bottom! Scenic Designer, KRISTIN ELLERT and Lighting Designer, JASON FASSL have done some amazing work here and it all frees the director and choreographer to pull off this fast paced and entrancing musical. This set is simply enchanting!
Now on to the story! It’s a great day in Bikini Bottom and we get to meet all of the residents as they come to spend their day on our stage. But something isn’t right as a few tremors shake our landscape and scare a few residents. It turns out the nearby active volcano Mt. Humongous is going to erupt and threatens the existence of Bikini Bottom…and there is just over 24 hours to do something about it! Well, only Director Tommy Novak and Choreographer Katelin Zelon know whats going to happen but they let us know how all of the residents feel and what they all are going to do as they keep the music, action, and dancing moving at break neck speed.
And although the story is aimed at families with young people 6 and older, the story and characters present us with a lot of personal and social dynamics. Different characters have different roles…different solutions…and different rationales for what actions they decide to take. And of course we have a delightful villain in Sheldon Plankton who wants to take advantage of the situation to the advantage of his restaurant the Chum Bucket…and his enabling assistant Karen. Meanies for sure but so cute you can’t quite bring yourself to boo them! All of the other characters are here as well. Squidward wants to finally put on a show and gain some recognition. SpongBob’s best friend forever, Patrick, gets distracted easily but comes through when he needs to. And Sandy Cheeks, the diving suit dwelling squirrel, is initially overlooked but brings her science to save the day…with help.
And what finally wins out? Friendship, teamwork, and co-operation as Sandy, Patrick, and SpongeBob manage the climb up unclimbable Mt. Humongous and save the day to everyone’s delight…well…except for maybe Sheldon!
AND! Oh my goodness, I almost forgot. There is another character who isn’t ‘on’ stage…and that’s the Foley Artist who provides any number of sounds and sound effects as required during the performance. The Foley Artist is hiding in plain sight on an elevated platform to the audience’s right…behind a railing and string of colored plastic soda bottles. I wanted to watch but the stage action was too fast and too engrossing to allow that. There are two artists manning the platform, Paul Helm and Jonathon Gideon ( the understudy who was on duty when I attended).
And as always First Stage employs two casts of young actors who alternate performances…so check the program and links below for cast members. The photos here will show members of both casts. And the casts always have clever names relevant to the play so in this case we have the Sponge and Starfish casts! But we mustn’t overlook the adult actors who provided the anchor (no pun intended but it works, right) for our story and younger cast members. What fun and what a wild ride from Doug Clemons as Squidward, Jesse Bhamrah as Plankton, Zach Thomas Woods as Krabs, Bree Beelow as Karen, Lachrisa Grandberry as Mrs. Mayor, and Raven Dockery as Puff!
Oh, and did I mention that there are bubbles? There ARE bubbles!
Additional information from First Stage and ticket info for The SpongeBob Musical!
And extra credit reading: The Playbill!
The SpongeBob Musical For Young Audiences runs through April 2, 2023 and what a perfect way to get us ready for spring! And there is always a 5 minute talk back after the performance for young audience members to ask a question about what they have just experienced! What fun…