Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Tina Landau

SpongeBob Squarepants -The (Offbeat) Broadway Musical


In 1989, animator and former marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg wrote an unpublished educational comic book titled The Intertidal Zone. Ten years later, his original concept became a Nickelodeon television series that has ballooned into the highest rated show on the roster of MTV Networks generating thirteen billion dollars – you read correctly – in merchandising revenue. The so-called children’s story has a wry/sarcastic/sometimes idiotic edge attracting at least as many adults to dedicated viewing.

For the uninitiated: SpongeBob (Ethan Slater, who, in his Broadway debut, has to currently be the hardest working musical actor treading the boards) is the naively cheerful offspring of a sea sponge and a kitchen sponge-don’t ask. Our hero lives with his pet snail Gary (who meows) in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea. The young invertebrate works as fry cook at Krusty Krab Restaurant where he dreams of becoming a manager. Neighbors are dim, best friend Patrick Star (Danny Skinner-imagine John Candy with ducktail hair) and co-worker Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee) a bad tempered, pessimistic octopus who lives in an Easter Island Moai.

Danny Skinner and Ethan Slater

Other regular characters include SB’s boss, miserly Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris) and his teenage daughter, Pearl (Jai’Len Christine Li Josey whose R & B vocals shake the rafters), the Texas born squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) a scientist who lives in an oak tree covered by an airtight glass dome outside of which she wears an astronaut’s suit (no idea how she got there), Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor and a puppet), a small, green pickle-looking character with a Napoleon complex who owns fast food competitor Chum Bucket and, with his robot wife, Karen (Stephanie Hsu), schemes to steal the recipe for Krabby Patties… Intrigued?

It’s easy to conjecture that Set/Costume Designer David Zinn (with ebullient Lighting Design by Kevin Adams) has never had a better time with a commission. From the moment one enters the transformed Palace Theatre, attention is beguiled. Shimmering, Mylar strip curtains cover everything vertical except the stage. An amusing video of underwater life (Peter Nigrini) plays across the pineapple-patterned curtain. As you’re serenaded by Hawaiian-shirted musicians beside an inflated palm tree, look carefully around. Coral is made out of wonderful assemblages of pool noodles and oversized party cups, there are sharks.

Ethan Slater

Huge blue bubbles arch over and drip down from the proscenium. Colorful Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms run almost floor to ceiling on either side of the stage. Watching these ingenious set pieces kick into precise action is sheer delight.

“Let us observe how the sun rises on a new day…” begins a French accented Narrator – a tribute to Jacques Cousteau? (Tom Kenny).

The plot of this iteration (there have been two films) revolves around a volcano threatening to destroy Bikini Bottom. “Ladies and Gentlefish,” cries the Mayor (Gaelen Gilliland), “We need somebody to save us!” Suggestions range from sacrificing to the volcano to Patrick’s “Let’s all close our eyes and maybe it won’t happen.”A clock starts ticking.

Wesley Taylor and The Company

Plankton seizes the moment to convince panicked citizens they must have an escape pod built and flee, establishing a new community (called Chumville) elsewhere. He intends to collectively hypnotize his fellow townsmen into Chum Bucket customers while becoming a hero. A Shellathon will be produced to raise money.

There’s a gathering that looks like undersea Barnum, a skateboarding punk rock band, a hip hop number, and one where sea anemones in pink sequins and feathers become unisex showgirls behind Squidward’s big, dedicated-to-mama, bring-the-house-down performance – a highlight.) Can Plankton’s dastardly plan be stopped?! It’s up to SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy to find a way!

Those dedicated to Bikini Bottom and its inhabitants may be reassured that depicting the beloved characters without unwieldy costumes actually works.  Along with the uber-creative Zinn, Hair Designer Charles G. Laponte and Make-Up Designer Joe DuludeI II help actors display just enough in tandem with characterization to bring the cartoon world to life. Ultimate credit goes to Director Tina Landau whose eye and ear for detail adds credibility and whose imaginative staging captivates. Wait until you see the volcano!

Lilli Cooper and Ethan Slater

Though SpongeBob is neither yellow not square, the terrific, multitalented Ethan Slater gives him just the right Pollyanna attitude and youthful inflection. Lithe, limber movement worthy of an acrobat puts the unwitting sponge in positions one might more easily draw. Danny Skinner’s Patrick exhibits dopey, sincere expression and comic delivery that reflect the obtuse starfish like a mirror.

Gavin Lee ably manages Squidward’s four legs (a construction of genius) which bend like his own, striking poses and skillfully tap dancing. The actor’s Eyeore-like tone embodies his octopus perfectly, while hands curl backwards like the animation. Brian Ray Norris’s oversized boxing glove-like claws and perpetually bent arms ride tandem with Mr. Krab’s gravelly bluster. I found Lilli Cooper’s Sandy a bit too grounded and Wesley Taylor’s Plankton oily, but unfamiliar. Sound effects made by and for the group also put us in their world. The cast, to a person, sings well.

Gavin Lee and The Company

Kyle Jarrow’s book employs signature expressions, expanding and embroidering while maintaining unique personalities. The show represents prejudice, friendship, community, confidence, and courage as much as immersing itself in fun.

Christopher Gattelli creates a wide range of high spirited choreography replete with fish-like gesture.

The musical’s problem, ignored by ninety percent of this exuberant audience, is its music and lyrics (arranged/orchestrated by Tom Kitt) which are almost uniformly generic/cliché. One would assume among the wide range of pop and rock contributors, someone would have availed him/herself of the wealth of fantastical specifics. Lack of context might be explained by drawing on material written before the show.  It didn’t work for Sting in an otherwise worthy vehicle and was part of the reason for the failure of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway.

The Company

If you’re not already familiar with the show and its characters, watch a few episodes or lose a great deal. There’s LOTS to look at and enjoy, but wouldn’t you think…

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Ethan Slater-left Lilli Cooper, right Danny Skinner and Brian Ray Norris

SpongeBob SquarePants -The Broadway Musical
Based on the series by Stephen Hillenburg
Book by Kyle Jarrow
Co-concieved and Directed by Tina Landau
The Palace Theatre    
1564 Broadway at 47th Street

Chess Match No. 5


I do not want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket or that it’s a president or that it’s in love with another sound, I just want it to be a sound.  John Cage

Chess Match No. 5 should, by all accounts, be boring. It is, after all, an entire play comprised of two people playing a game of chess and discussing their perception of the reality of music. But it is definitely not boring.

The SITI Company has created a work based on the public conversations of John Page as arranged by Jocelyn Clarke. Born in 1912, the noted and controversial composer, writer, artist and philosopher, was among the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde and is often considered one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. Taking the words of John Cage, the company has combined writing, direction, acting and the creativity of an entire ensemble to develop what can only be called a remarkable production.


Without question, the philosophy and techniques of the SITI Company are a large part of the successful outcome. SITI, founded in 1992 by Anne Bogart and Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, evolved out of two very different systems, Suzuki and Viewpoints. The mission of Suzuki is to restore the actor’s innate expressive abilities through focus on physical movement drawn from Japanese and Greek theater, ballet and martial arts. Viewpoints was developed in 1970 by choreographer Mary Overlie as a method of movement improvisation. The six basic principles of Viewpoints, later adapted for stage by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, include Space, the physical environment and relationship of objects; Shape, the contour of bodies related to space; Time, tempo, duration, reaction and repetition; Emotion, Movement and Story.

The procedures of the SITI Company serve the words of Cage well and result not in a structure that restricts, but rather in one that provides unlimited freedom. Once the boundaries of preconceived concepts are broken, choice is without limit.

Cage’s overriding philosophy, embodied in all of his works, is that music exists solely and simply for its own sake. One example, often discussed and passionately debated, is the three movement composition “4’33” which is performed in four minutes and 33 seconds. Before beginning, the musicians are requested to put down their instruments. What remains is the ambient sound, the music, of the surrounding environment. In a 1957 lecture Cage described music as “…an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”


Chess Match No.5 was conceived and directed by Anne Bogart, co-director of the SITI Company. She has directed it with careful attention to each moment, each nuance, and each in relationship to the whole.

The performances of the production’s two actors, Will Bond as John Cage and Ellen Lauren as his long-time friend and intellectual equal, are extraordinary. They have mastered incredibly challenging roles, totally embodying their characters and never allowing the attention of the audience to waver.  They also manage to transition smoothly from the intellectual repartee to jokes that are delightful in their contrivance and dances that come out of nowhere (and are very well performed).

In a world in which falsely perceived reality and inflexible and biased opinions are often the norm, anything which opens the mind and provides a stimulus for thought is to be lauded, and when it provides entertainment as well, it is something not to be missed.  Go see Chess Match No. 5.  You will enjoy it and you will not forget it.

Photos by Maria Baranova

Chess Match No. 5
Created by the SITI Company and Presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company
Choreography, Barney O’Hanlon; Scenic and Costume Design, James Schuette; Lighting Design, Brian H. Scott; Sound Design, Darron L. West
June Havoc Theatre
312 West 36th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue)
Through April 2nd Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.and Sunday at 2 p.m.