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Theater review: Under the sea, Selma Arts Center delivers a visually splendid and emotionally meaningful ‘SpongeBob Musical’

Updated July 2 to include Michael Seitz as Patchy the Pirate.

My late father loved watching the “SpongeBob Squarepants” cartoons with his grandsons. One reason was because my dad simply had a goofy sense of humor. But I suspect it was also because SpongeBob himself is so gosh-darn optimistic. He’s the supernova of sunny dispositions. His glass is never just half-full; it’s to the brim and overflowing. He even likes Squidward, as hard as it may be to believe.

Pictured above: Jonathan Padilla is SpongeBob, left, and Adrian Oceguera is the Foley Fish. Top right, Cady Mejias as Sandy Cheeks. Bottom right: Joshua Plowman (as Patrick Star), John Piper (as Squidward) and Padilla. Photos: Kyle Lowe / Selma Arts Center

Yes, I know that some people find SpongeBob irritating. His relentless cheeriness can seem one-note. His squeaky voice could scratch metal. But it all comes down to this: Every day, for SpongeBob, could be the best day ever. Life has limitless possibilities.

When it comes to the new Selma Arts Center production, all I can say is: Like father, like son.

I’d already fallen in love with the music from the original Broadway cast album long before I actually got to see the show in person. (In a fascinating creative experiment, a bevy of famed contemporary composers took turns writing the numbers.) And now, thanks to Selma’s new, inspired production, I can wholeheartedly embrace the musical as well.

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Director Dominic Grijalva is endlessly clever. He pulls off scenes and effects for what I’m sure was the tiniest fraction of what they likely cost on Broadway. But this “SpongeBob” never seems skimpy. The world Grijalva creates is robust, from the sea-soaked atmosphere the moment you sit down in your seat – a jungle of kaleidoscopic kelp and shimmering, colorful underwater foliage, complete with adorable little tiki-torch-like attachments on the bleachers – to the fanciful sets and costumes. The emotional component is robust, too. These characters check the boxes you’d expect from the TV show, but there’s a lot more to them than you get in the cartoon. These wacky sea creatures feel it all: love, fear, anger, compassion, jealousy. And happiness. They laugh. They have fun. They make silly sea puns. I had a big, stupid smile on my face for half the show.

As the title character, Jonathan Padilla is an athletic whirlwind. In his short-sleeve yellow shirt, shorts, spiffy tie, black dress shoes and tube socks, he bops around the stage like a kid hopped up on sugar in a McDonald’s bounce house. In such numbers as “(Just a) Simple Sponge,” written by Panic! At the Disco, Padilla captures both his character’s buoyant nature and gentle sense of melancholy. At one point he gives Gary, his pet snail, a kiss goodbye, and I think I might have teared up.

Cady Mejias, as Sandy Cheeks the Squirrel, gives a sharp and accomplished performance, bringing strong vocals, a great sense of physicality and happy comic timing to the role. Joshua Plowman, as best friend and sidekick Patrick Star, imbues his not-so-bright character with a hilariously vacant demeanor. (His big dance number, “Super Sea Star Savior,” written by Yolanda Adams, is a highlight.) John Piper excels as a morose Squidward.

Singling out ensemble cast members: Jacob Gonzales is a standout as a TV reporter with a voice as deep as the Marianas Trench; and Mady Broach is irresistible as the pompous mayor. (In one brilliant little stage moment, the mayor snaps a photo of the “End of the World,” then in the next beat of the song, she posts it online using her phone.)


Related story: 10 Things to Know about Selma Arts Center’s much anticipated ‘The SpongeBob Musical’

One final, very late shout-out goes to Michael Seitz as Patchy, the pirate who entertains the audience before the show begins and then makes a surprise appearance later on. (He’s also in the ensemble, with a featured role as one of the Electric Skates.) When I first wrote this review, I couldn’t figure out what the pirate character was named and then forgot to follow through. But now I’ll belatedly say that Seitz has a gem of a voice and a wonderful improvisational stage presence.

The storyline is what you might consider a typical disaster-movie arc: The citizens of Bikini Bottom confront a terrifying underwater volcano that threatens to bury the town. The villain of the piece, the diminutive Sheldon J. Plankton (Jorge Ramirez, who has some strong comic moments and a great rap moment, helped by Michael C. Flores’ brisk choreography), along with his “Computer Wife,” Karen (Camille Gaston, also amusing), tries to stoke divisions in the town. He wants an advantage in his “Fast Food Cold War) between him and Mr. Krabs (Jason Bionda, who does some amazingly raspy things with his voice).

Two thoughts on the volcano angle: I loved the beach balls that represent the lava; and I was particularly impressed with the staging of the laborious climb up the mountain attempted by SpongeBob and Sandy. Using scenic designer Mitchell Lam Hau’s clever movable sets, the staging actually feels as accomplished and more impactful than the Broadway version (which was filmed by Nickelodeon).

Creative credits are strong, including Christina Martinez-McCollam’s lighting design, Heather Sisk’s costumes (which incorporate symbolic seaworthy accessories rather than bury the humans in cartoonish get-ups), and Kaylee Hernandez’s tap choreography. (A separate ensemble of tap dancers in Squidward’s number is a fun surprise.) Ajay Davis’ sound design is excellent, balancing the vocals and recorded track nicely with the foley artist, Adrian Oceguera, who provides live, onstage sound effects. (I did have a hard time hearing the narrator (Benjamin McNamara) over the music.


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If there’s a weakness to the show, it’s with some of the vocals. Padilla has a pure, beautiful high tone, but his challenge at the matinee I attended was finding the pitch. (The finale got off to a rocky start.) Gracie Dodson had some strong comic moments as Pearl, the teeny-bopper daughter of Mr. Krabs, but also had some intonation issues. And speaking of crabby, I wanted to hear a little more tone and a little less raspiness in Bionda’s performance.

And while the choreography was often inspired, the dancing isn’t always as sharp and accomplished as I’ve seen in some Selma productions.

With all the glam and glitter, you might think “SpongeBob” overdoses on silliness. But there’s a surprisingly sharp line of social commentary running through Kyle Jarrow’s book. Global warming, capitalism, anti-science sentiment, and “fear of the other” are small but significant emphases. Most of all, the show gently chides the tendency for diminished expectations. Yes, SpongeBob is a simple example of the phylum Porifera, but he consistently overperforms physically, emotionally and mentally. And he does it all while absolutely convinced the best is yet to come. Yep, I’d come in sometimes and find my dad laughing at the “SpongeBob” cartoons. I wish he’d lived to see “The SpongeBob Musical.” We would have had a blast.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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