Soaking it up at the SpongeBob musical

The company of The SpongeBob Musical, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Daria Pilar Redus is Sandy Cheeks, Lorenzo Pugliese is SpongeBob SquarePants and Beau Bradshaw is Patrick Star. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

The “why” is easy. When you’ve got a product that earns literally billions of dollars around the globe, at some point you have to stop and say, “Gee, wouldn’t this be a great Broadway musical?” At least that’s what happens these days, especially with successful animated ventures – please note all the Disney musicals (except Aida), Shrek, Anastasia and The Prince of Egypt on its way. So it wasn’t at all surprising when the folks at Nickelodeon decided to turn the internationally beloved SpongeBob SquarePants, created by the late Stephen Hillenburg, into a splashy live musical.

Following the Lion King blueprint, producers turned to a theater director who earned lots of off-Broadway and Chicago street cred before heading to Broadway to turn their franchise into something that could potentially please everybody: die-hard fans of the smiling yellow sponge, musical theater enthusiasts and families who want to enjoy a theater outing together.

The resulting show, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, was the kind of energetic, colorful endeavor that nearly did the trick when it came to making everybody happy. Director Tina Landau and scenic/costume designer David Zinn delivered something with broad humor, fan service and buckets full of flash and sparkle. Cynical critics had to admit they were somewhat surprised to enjoy something they would never have expected to like in a million years. The show never really found its audience on Broadway and closed after less than a year without recouping its costs.

But you can’t sink a sponge. Much of the Broadway cast reconvened for a television broadcast of the show on Nickelodeon last December, and now a non-Equity tour of the show is criss-crossing the country. That production, with a simplified new title for the road – The SpongeBob Musical – is making a quick five-day stop at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.


Zinn’s DIY set (think water weenies, metal drums and other garage sale-type elements) has been scaled down, and the young cast wavers in vocal quality and comic timing, but this SpongeBob makes a mildly successful case for the leap from TV (and movies and theme parks and gazillions of products) to Broadway for SpongeBob and all his neighbors from Bikini Bottom, their home at the bottom of the sea.

You don’t watch a musical like this lamenting the art form that gave us Carousel, Gypsy and Hamilton. No, you enjoy what there is to enjoy, which in this case is a bright, vivacious package full of sweetly acerbic characters providing entertainment that does indeed have appeal to young and old. Some knowledge of SpongeBob would be helpful but is not required. One wise decision the creative team made was to free the actors from cumbersome theme park-y costumes of any kind. If this guy is a well-adjusted sponge, and that gal is a science-loving squirrel, and this guy is a starfish and that gal is a computer, well it all makes a demented sort of sense without making any sense at all. At least it’s mostly easy to know who’s who and what’s what in this tale of impending apocalypse for SpongeBob and his pals (there’s a volcano and attempts at drama but none of that really matters).

The book by Kyle Jarrow captures a lot of what’s sweet and salty about the show, and Landau’s restrained chaos direction feels like a live-action cartoon, heavy on the looney gags and visuals. It was a smart move to have a percussionist on stage making a whole host of cartoon sound effects (three cheers for Ryan Blihovde. That helps keep things lively, although the show’s length (2 1/2 hours including intermission) does feel like a slog through a kelp forest here and there. That probably wouldn’t be the case were the score stronger or at least more consistent.

The songs represent the work of many people, most of them bona fide rock and pop stars (with only Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper representing experience with Broadway musical success). There are members of Aerosmith, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and Panic! At the Disco alongside artists including John Legend, Yolanda Adams and even David Bowie (who had done a voice on the TV show and let producers adapt his 1995 song with Brian Eno “Outside”). It’s an uneven mish-mash, but orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt works hard to make it all sound like it belongs to the same show. The best numbers are Lauper’s “Hero Is My Middle Name” and They Might Be Giants’ “I’m Not a Loser.”

That last number, performed by a four-legged squid named Squidward Q. Tentacles (Cody Cooley), is the show’s apex. The sourpuss character attempts to convince himself he’s not a loser by imagining himself as the center of a lavish production number filled with pink sea anemones (the ensemble decked out in fluffy, funny costumes) and a solo four-footed tap dance. SpongeBob, played by the chipper Lorenzo Pugliese, never gets his own showstopper, but he’s a beaming presence on stage, and though his friendships with Patrick Star (Beau Bradshaw) and Sandy Cheeks (Daria Pilar Redus) are sweet, some of his most affecting moments are with Gary, his (inanimate) pet snail.

If corporations are going to keep turning their intellectual property into Broadway musicals (there must be an easier, more reliable cash grab), they could do worse than The SpongeBob Musical. There’s still a shiny, happy theme-park feel to the show in spite of all its smart Broadway touches, but it’s got some charm, some heart and that good old Broadway optimism that the sun will come out tomorrow.

The SpongeBob Musical continues through Feb. 16 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$266. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Trials, tribulations in powerful Passes at Berkeley Rep

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Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Shelah and Michael A. Shepperd is Creaker in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. Below: Shepperd’s Creaker prepares for a party with his son, Crier (Jonathan Burke). Photos courtesy of

Some houses leak when it rains. For Shelah, the deluge inside is almost as severe as the one outside, and that’s just the water. The metaphorical flood – of tragedy – has only just begun.

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and New York’s Public Theater, takes its cue from Job, the world’s most famous sufferer and faith questioner. This time out, the one who will pray on bended knee and shake her fist at God is Shelah, the matriarch of a family whose Louisiana home sits where three forks of the Mississippi River come together in a wetlands area known as Head of Passes.

McCraney, a fast-rising playwright best known in the Bay Area for his extraordinary Brother/Sister Plays, is the kind of writer who blends real-world storytelling with elements of poetry and spirit to create a heightened theatrical language that conjures a world that looks and often feels like our own but then expands or contracts to feel epic or microscopic depending on the dramatic situation.

McCraney has a true gift, and it’s thrilling to fall into one of his plays. Head of Passes is an immersive experience in every way. The story McCraney unspools begins in the realm of classic American family drama – it feels like rich territory trod by O’Neill, Miller, Wilson and the like – but then becomes wholly McCraney in Act 2 when Shelah must deal with the wrath of God. Director Tina Landau (whodirected the play’s 2013 world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company) also delivers an astonishing physical production that drowns Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage in rain, flood and rising tides.

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At first glance, G.W. Skip Mercier’s set reveals a large, handsome two-story home where there’s about to be a birthday party for Shelah, a widow, attended by close friends and her grown children. Festival lights have been strung in what looks to be a nicely appointed day room, where the party will take place. When the storm arrives, we see the rain outside the living room window, but soon enough, the leaky roof might as well not even be there. It’s raining in the living room, and no bucket or pile of towels will catch the overflow.

The party, as they say, must go on. Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, reprising the role from the Chicago premiere), doesn’t even remember it’s her birthday. She’s happy to see her sons Aubrey (Francois Battiste) and Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry) and daughter Cookie (Nikkole Salter), but she doesn’t want a fuss. She’s especially dismayed to see her doctor (James Carpenter, who gets one of the evening’s best laughs), the only other person who knows the truth about her precarious health.

Along with a candle-laden cake, the party offers up its fair share of drama, much of it centered around Shelah’s late husband and his relationship with his children (especially Cookie). There’s also a minor father-son drama involving Creaker (Michael A. Shepperd), Shelah’s major domo, and his son, Crier (Jonathan Burke), who seems only a few auditions away from landing a Broadway national tour.

By the end of Act 1, long-suppressed truths have been revealed, betrayals have occurred and relationships have fractured. The emotional storm is matched by the one outside, and havoc is wreaked so effectively, the technical prowess of the production threatens to overwhelm the plot.

But McCraney and Landau are too canny to let that happen. Act 2 essentially becomes a monologue for Shelah, a churchgoing woman all her life, who suffers wave after wave of bad news while the building over her head continuously threatens to dump her into the rising waters below.

Bruce’s performance as Shelah feels appropriately matriarchal at first: she is what holds this family together, and her faith is easy. When she sees a handsome angel (Sullivan Jones), she knows what he’s there for, and she nervously but almost joyfully gives herself over to him so she can finally thank God herself. But it’s not going to be all harps and glowing lights for Shelah. If she thinks she has known suffering, she hasn’t seen anything yet.

Shelah’s agony is palpable, and Bruce’s ability to vacillate between anger and soul-crushing pain is remarkable. Of course there are no easy answers here. Faith is all about uncertainty, and that’s what Shelah has to wrestle with. She hasn’t always done the right thing or the good thing, and in this time of greatest need, she feels every misstep. Where her relationship with God yielded comfort, it now brings torment. Not even her closest friend (Kimberly Scott as Mae) can get close without Shelah lashing out. Her pain is practically toxic.

Shelah’s is a house that will not stand, though Head of Passes will long stand in memory as a powerful piece of American drama.

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes continues through May 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29 to $79. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Irwin and Shiner: Old Hats are the best hats

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Bill Irwin (left), singer/songwriter Shaina Taub (center) and David Shiner light up the Geary Theater in the Signature Theatre production of Old Hats, the season opener for American Conservatory Theater. Below: Shiner and Irwin have a classic clown encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

I will be the first to admit that clowns have never been a favorite of mine. Not circus clowns, not hobo clowns, not mimes, not even a lot of commedia dell’arte rigamarole. Occasionally, however, I get it – I get the comedy, I get the poignancy, I get the masterful balance of comedy and tragedy in the pursuit of laughs.

And by far my favorite clowns – the ones who do it better than just about anybody – are Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Their Full Moon was a revelation both times it was at American Conservatory Theater, and because of that, I expected great things from their latest collaboration, Old Hats, a production of New York’s Signature Theatre that opens the ACT season.

Expectations are dangerous in the theater, but I had them, and Irwin and Shiner more than delivered. This show is as funny and as sweet and as salty as the last one with the added bonus of having the wonderful Shaina Taub on hand to sing her songs and front a fantastic band.

I reviewed Old Hats for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek:

…now they’re back to open ACT’s season with a victory lap they like to call “Old Hats.” A hit last year for New York’s Signature Theatre, the show is two hours of gratifying laughter in the company of two masters who don’t seem to have aged a day in the 13 years since we last saw them perform together.
They may be flirting (or have flirted) with 60, but these clowns are ageless as long as they’re on stage wearing baggy pants, oversized coats and clown shoes (costumes and set design by G.W. Mercier). Whether they’re performing hat tricks, ribbing each other or performing a good, old-fashioned vaudeville dance, they do everything with a polish and precision that makes everything look natural and easy.

Read the full review here.

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Old Hats continues through Oct. 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit