Book: Kyle Jarrow; Score: Various artists. At: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets: 800-775-2000 or BroadwayInChicago.com; $33-$100. Runs through: July 10
It's telling that The SpongeBob Musical doesn't deploy the theme song from SpongeBob SquarePants, the Nickelodeon animated TV-series that inspired it, until the curtain call. That's a great sign that this Broadway-aimed world premiere musical, clearly born out of corporate synergy to tap into the TV series' wide generational fan base, is proud to stand up on its own as a creatively fun stage entity.
Loads of credit goes to unlikely director Tina Landau, a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member who has built a reputation on more esoterically artistically probing productions. Landau and her amazingly creative production team ensure that to enjoy this eye-popping and family-targeted stage spectacle, you don't necessarily need to have seen episodes about the ever-optimistic and absorbent title character ( portrayed onstage with flexible enthusiasm by Ethan Slater ).
Landau smartly avoids the trap of so many touring productions inspired by kids TV shows. Those often feature performers pantomiming in face-covering plush costumes to pre-recorded audio tracks.
Instead, Landau puts her diverse human performers engagingly up front and center, and they all maintain an infectious sense of childhood playtime and delight throughout. Slater is supported by his very entertaining co-stars, like Lilli Cooper, as the super-smart squirrel Sandy Cheeks, and Danny Skinner, as the lug-headed starfish Patrick.
Particularly wowing is Gavin Lee, as Squidward Tentacles, who practically steals the show with his four-legged tap-dance production number "I'm Not a Loser." Other members of the ensemble also get their own chance to shine, like Nick Blaemire as the devious Sheldon Plankton arguing with Stephanie Hsu as his contrary computer Karen.
The entire multi-talented ensemble shines amid the fantastically colorful sea-inspired sets and within the wacky costumes of Tony Award-winning designer David Zinn. The color-saturated tropical lighting of Kevin Adams and the sophisticated animated projections of Peter Nigrini are also continual delights.
Playwright Kyle Jarrow manages to inject some grown-up issues of societal scapegoating and political fearmongering into his script. All the characters of the Bikini Bottom community are tested when an undersea volcano threatens to erupt the very next day.
Where The SpongeBob Musical isn't quite so absorbing is in its score, which has a variable quality due to so many rock and pop stars listed as contributors. That the score works as well as it does is a credit to music supervisor and orchestrator Tom Kitt, although The SpongeBob Musical can't quite conceal the feeling that too many cooks do not allow for a unifying musical through-line.
Nonetheless, audiences are guaranteed to exit The SpongeBob Musical humming the performances and the visuals. And for super fans like the meta-character of Patchy the Pirate ( a very funny Jason Michael Snow ), The SpongeBob Musical will be pure underwater heaven.