Not a simple sponge: Spongebob is a silly, fun under-the-sea musical for all ages

Photo by Evan Hanover

I have never watched a single episode of “SpongeBob Squarepants.” As I entered the Chopin Theatre to see the opening night of Kokandy’s The SpongeBob Musical, pretty much all I knew was the fact that the title character lives in a pineapple under the sea—I have no clue how I even knew that much—and I had heard some of the (excellent) music. (It should be excellent, with a lineup of composers ranging from Sara Bareilles to Steven Tyler to Cyndi Lauper to—and I’m not kidding—David Bowie!) I also knew that it garnered twelve (!) Tony nominations and one win.

Clearly, this show was more than a silly cartoon about a simple sponge. Thus, I was really looking forward to seeing it for the first time. (I had missed its pre-Broadway Chicago tryout.) I was not disappointed: Kokandy’s SpongeBob is one of the most purely entertaining shows of the year.

Beginning with a beautiful and creative set by Jonathan Berg-Einhorn that—especially when you factor in the confinement of Chopin Theatre’s basement space—easily evokes the bottom of the sea…Bikini Bottom, to be precise: the little enclave of sea creatures (and a seriously lost squirrel) that is the show’s setting, everything about this production is simply wonderful. Director JD Caudill and choreographer Jenna Schoppe have teamed together to give us an energetic, campy, often hilarious production—the conceptual antithesis of last year’s Sweeney Todd, but in every way just as impressive.

Frankie Leo Bennett is SpongeBob, and I know enough to know that he absolutely nails the voice and the mannerisms of the world’s most well-known sponge. Bennett is immediately recognizable as the kind of underappreciated, overlooked character that is easy to cheer for. Think Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors: SpongeBob is the kind of nebbishy character who would be destined always to be in the background if someone had not built a show around him. Unlike Seymour, he is eternally optimistic and able to see the bright side of his life, though he does wish for more. (In his case, “more” is being made a manager of the Krusty Krab restaurant, though his avaricious boss, Eugene H. Krabs, sees him as never making it beyond his current job as a fry cook.)

Krabs is played by Tommy Bullington—some excellent casting there—in one of many brilliant supporting performances in this play. He somehow manages to make comically likable a character who prioritizes making money even over the wellbeing of his daughter (an enthusiastic turn by Jennifer Ledesma, who gets to showcase her wonderful soprano voice here) and even the entire population of Bikini Bottom. It helps that Krabs is single-minded, but he is not evil. Not even the sour, surly Squidward Q. Tentacles, engrossingly played by Quinn Rigg, who moves like something out of the Ministry of Silly Walks, is evil; he’s just lonely.

The role of villain is taken up by Krabs’ fast-food rival, a tiny guy with a Napoleon complex named Sheldon J. Plankton, played at first by one of the puppets designed by Lolly Extract and then by the always-amazing Parker Guidry, doing their finest scene-stealing Dr. Horrible. Sheldon apparently hates the fact that, being so small, he is not seen as a real part of Bikini Bottom. (That may have more to do with his restaurant’s name, The Chum Bucket, than the plankton’s personality.) With his girlfriend, a computer named Karen (played by Amy Yesom Kim—it was not her fault that I didn’t know Karen was a computer until checking the program at intermission), he has launched many nefarious schemes in the past to take control of Bikini Bottom.

Opportunity is about to present itself: serious tremors of the sea floor turn out to be precursors of a huge eruption of the nearby underwater volcano known as Mount Humongous, threatening to wipe out the small town. The mayor, a parody of ineffectual government played by Connar Brown, immediately leaps to work, forming focus groups to investigate forming committees to figure out ways to deal with the oncoming disaster, even though it has been widely reported on television that the eruption will occur at “sundown tomorrow.” (Why residents of the sea bottom even know about the sun, let alone use it to tell time, is a mystery best left to philosophers.)

Speaking of mysteries, the aforementioned outlander squirrel, Sandy Cheeks (played by the talented and affable Sarah Patin), is an Einstein-level scientist—just go with it—who figures out a way to stop the eruption using a device with the silly name “Eruptor Interruptor” that will stop it with—wait for it—bubbles if someone drops it into the volcano’s crater. In a self-conscious parody of the left-vs-right assault on science, the town rejects this solution as impossible and eventually turns on Sandy herself. (“Blame the squirrel,” an old man says, getting the townsfolk to turn on the mammalian intruder to their undersea home. Why there is an old man in Bikini Bottom, and why he too is not called out as a mammal, is, again, just not a thing to wonder about. This is a goofy children’s cartoon; anything goes.)

It is left to SpongeBob, his BFF Patrick Star (Isabel Cecilia García, who memorably played the Old Woman in Sweeney Todd), and Sandy to save the town by themselves…even if they have to climb to the top of the volcano to do it and deal with Patrick’s temporary defection to lead a cult of hero-worshiping sardines; again, don’t ask. (Of course, the nefarious plankton comes up with another convoluted scheme to stop them, but…let’s just say that the show has SpongeBob in its title, not Sheldon.)

Everything about this show, from the performances to the band (directed by Brian McCaffrey) to the outrageously perfect costumes (Jakob Abderhalden), makeup (Sydney Genco), and wigs (Keith Ryan), to G. Max Maxim IV’s lighting and Michael J. Patrick’s sound, to the green-bewigged onstage foley artist Ele Matelan—whoever decided to put her onstage is a genius—to properties whimsically designed by Patrick Maguire, is thoroughly enjoyable. Caudill’s lively direction and Schoppe’s inventive and playful choreography make for a show that will keep audiences energized, engaged, and smiling from the preshow featuring David Lipshutz as a SpongeBob-infatuated pirate named Patchy through to the ending, when on opening night a young girl was spontaneously (?) pulled from the audience to join the cast in its final bows.

All in all, this musical is a whole lot more entertainment than you’d ever expect from “a simple sponge.”

The SpongeBob Musical is a Kokandy production now playing at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago, until September 3. Tickets are available at For more Chicago reviews or show information, see or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *