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.

Tom Kitt

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In 1989, animator and former marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg wrote an unpublished educational comic book titled The Intertidal Zone.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

Freaky Friday Is Freakin’ Fun


Grab your daughter and run to see Freaky Friday, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Don’t live nearby? Don’t worry. Freaky Friday was developed by Disney Theatrical to be licensed through its partner, Musical Theatre International, first to professional and then to amateur theaters. So the production may be coming to a venue near you. When it does, don’t miss it.


Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton (Photo by Jim Saah)

Disney, constantly mining its film vault for material that can be recast for the stage, made a wise call with this one. Freaky Friday is the kind of feel good show with a message that never grows old. As a writer for NBC’s Parenthood, Bridget Carpenter knows something about family relationships. For the musical’s book, she took the basic story – a mom and daughter inadvertently switching bodies for a day – while updating the themes to resonate with a young, tech savvy audience. Besides an enjoyable two hours in the theater, the musical should spark followup conversations with young people about social pressure, cliques, body image, and privacy.

Disney decided to premiere the production at Signature and brought together a talented creative team to make it happen. They included, from Broadway: director, Christopher Ashley (Memphis);  musical score, Tom Kitt, and lyrics, Brian Yorke (the duo behind the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal); choreography, Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet); set design, Beowulf Boritt (Tony Award, Act One); Emily Rebholz, costume design (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike); and lighting design, Howell Brinkley (Hamilton, Tony Award).


Heidi Blickenstaff with the Cast (Photo by Jim Saah)

Heidi Blickenstaff, who delighted Broadway audiences with her performance in Something Rotten, plays the mom, Katherine, a widow and type-A personality who is driven to control everything and everyone around her. Besides running a successful catering business, she’s taken on the job of planning her wedding to Mike (Alan H. Green). But she still has time to micromanage her children, ten year-old Fletcher (Jake Heston Miller), and teenage Ellie (Emma Hunton).

Katherine fails to see that her upcoming marriage is having an impact on her children, who still miss their father. While the younger Fletcher retreats into a fantasy world with his puppets – a hippo and a starfish – Ellie lashes out at her mother. A tussle over a vintage hourglass with magical powers zaps Katherine into her daughter’s body, while Ellie morphs into her mother’s. Ellie is quickly overwhelmed, struggling to cope with being a mother and soon to be wife, while her employees look to her for guidance. Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself in high school, struggling in gym class, dissecting a frog in biology, and dealing with mean girls.

Blickenstaff perfectly captures the mannerisms, facial expressions, and speech patterns of a teenager. She twists strands of hair, wrings her hands, and bats her eyes. Faced with Adam (Jason Gotay), the boy Ellie has a crush on, she positively melts. The poor young man, has no idea why his classmate’s mother is acting so strangely.


Sherri L. Edelen, Emma Hutton, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Heidi Blickenstaff (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Conversely, Hunton becomes more restrained, an adult in a teenage body. When mother and daughter  wind up in the high school counselor’s office, what unfolds is clever and hilarious.  Two officials (played by Jason SweetTooth Williams and Sherri L. Edelen) critique Ellie’s school performance. Katherine (really Ellie), dismisses their concerns, her casual body language speaking volumes. Meanwhile, Ellie (really Katherine), takes their concerns seriously, perched on the edge of the sofa, ready to take action. Both actresses play the scene for all it’s worth.


Jason Gotay with the Teen Ensemble (Photo by Jim Saah)

The teen ensemble is terrific. Kudos to Trujillo’s choreography, particularly the gym scene where the students use inflated bouncy balls to great effect. Storm Lever, as Ellie’s nemesis, Savannah, perfectly captures the manipulative attitude that defines so many mean girls.


Heidi Blickenstaff and Jake Heston Miller (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Jake Heston Miller, who has to be one of the busiest child actors around, having last appeared as Oliver at Arena Stage, is just plain adorable as Fletcher. And the scenes between him and Katherine (who is really Ellie) are sweet moments, sibling bonding under unusual circumstances. Katherine first bursts his bubble in Act One with the hurtful, “Parents Lie,” then redeems herself in Act Two with the sweet “After All of This and Everything.”

There’s a brilliant and brave moment in the musical which will speak to so many young girls who obsess over their bodies. Ellie and her two besties – Katie Ladner as Gretchen and Shayna Blass as Hannah – strip down to own their appearance. Bravo!

With the day coming to a close, Katherine and Ellie manage to switch back, just in time for Katherine to be wed to the long-suffering, yet very perceptive, Mike. He knows better than Katherine that winning over his stepchildren will take some time. But thanks to the day’s events, mother and daughter have reached a greater understanding. There’s no better way to empathize with someone else than by taking time to actually walk in their shoes. That’s a message for the ages and for all ages.

For information on licensing Freaky Friday, contact MTI by phone, 212-541-4684, or email, licnesing@mtishows.com

Top photo credit: Margot Schulman

Freaky Friday
Signature Theatre
Through November 20, 2016
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA