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Theatre Cedar Rapids diving into ‘SpongeBob’
Musical based on popular cable TV cartoon runs May 5 to 28
CEDAR RAPIDS — Before launching into a musical theater rehearsal, most actors spend some time doing weird vocal warmups and body stretches.
But before a recent “SpongeBob” rehearsal, two actors were roller skating and another was riding a stand-up scooter around the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage.
Such is life under an animated sea, springing to life Friday, May 5, through May 28, 2023, on the TCR main stage. It’s based on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series starring a walking-talking sponge who lives in a submerged pineapple — and his friends, neighbors and co-workers.
If you go
What: “The SpongeBob Musical”
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: May 5 to 28, 2023; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $48; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591or theatrecr.org/event/the-spongebob-musical/2023-05-05/
The 2018 Tony-winning musical features songs — with reworked lyrics — by a who’s who of pop musicians, including David Bowie, Plain White T’s, Panic! at the Disco, Cyndi Lauper, The Flaming Lips, Sara Bareilles, Lady A, John Legend, They Might Be Giants, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
Just like the best cartoons, lively antics will keep the young viewers engaged, and the references that fly over their heads will keep the adults entertained.
“There’s some serious undertones in a very fun, lightweight show,” said director Lisa Kelly of Iowa City.
SpongeBob (Mic Evans) and company are shaken up when Mount Humongous shakes up their undersea town of Bikini Bottom.
Enter villain Sheldon J. Plankton (Greg Smith) and his wife, Karen, a waterproof computer (Erin Lauer). Proprietors of the sinking Chum Bucket restaurant, they cook up a plan to convince the panicky residents to enter an escape pod that’s really a portal where they will be hypnotized into liking the Chum Bucket’s food. The residents soak up the plan, and decide to stage a concert to finance building the pod.
Along the way, audiences will meet SpongeBob’s besties, starfish Patrick Star (James Odegaard) and squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Precious Kimbrough), equipped with an underwater breathing apparatus and a scientific brain.
SpongeBob wants everyone to stay put, as they put Sandy’s bubble solution to the test. Meanwhile, the Mayor (Belle Canney) creates a dictatorship over the growing anarchy, and an angry mob decides to hunt down Sandy, blaming this “land mammal” for causing the pending doom, instead of trying to end it.
And after a town meeting in which Patrick espouses some words of wisdom, he sees his star rise above his peers. His newfound fame goes straight to his pointy head, causing a rift with SpongeBob.
What will happen? Will Bikini Bottom remain on top or be swallowed up by the lava flow? Will Sandy be banished to a life on land? Will Patrick and SpongeBob mend their friendship? Will the town’s residents calm down? What on earth will happen under the sea?
The action “digs into some of the things that are happening in the world today,” Kelly said. “ … But really, it’s about SpongeBob, and his best friend Patrick, and how they sort of weather the storms of friendship, and what happens when you get torn apart by life and other things happening. And their good friend, Sandy, who’s dealing with not being from Bikini Bottom, and what happens when everyone turns on her and how the threesome grows stronger together.
“And, of course, it manages — as all good cartoons do — to find ingenious and innovative and fun ways to save the day,” Kelly said, noting the show imparts multiple teaching moments.
“Even for someone who doesn’t know the show at all, you get invested really quickly in the story and in these characters, and in what they’re trying to do, because it feels like it could be any show about kind of friendship and dealing with problems and growing up. It just happens to be set under the sea in a fantastical world.”
It’s a large cast, with nearly 40 actors, from elementary school to middle-aged, embodying various fish, crabs, a tap-dancing octopus, sardines, anemone, a lobster, a mobster fish, electric skates, and even pirates.
“For people that do know the show, they are going to meet all their favorite characters from the cartoon,” Kelly said.
They won’t be singing and dancing puppets — they’ll dress as humans and sing and dance as humans. And therein lies the fun.
“They’re all a little fishy, but mostly humanized,” Kelly said. “The goal is that everyone has something on them that is kind of floating in the air, like whether it’s a frill or some sort of gill-type things on it.”
And will they sound fishy?
“We talked a lot with everybody about finding ways to know their cartoon character and find places to give homage almost to them, but that they’re not bound by only what their cartoon would do,” Kelly said.
SpongeBob and Patrick come the closest to staying in their worlds, vocally. And yet, it’s hard to shake those fictional realms in the real world.
“I get stuck in the voice a little bit,” said Evans, 29, of Cedar Rapids, TCR’s education director. “I wake up in the morning and it's right here in my face. I ordered coffee the other day as SpongeBob.”
He described his character as “ever the optimist.”
“He’s an everyman. He is the most wide-eyed, optimistic, kindhearted (and) not an ounce of sarcasm in the body that contains no bones. He feels the full range of human emotions as a sponge, but at 100. It’s zero to 60 in two seconds. And I think that’s the best part about him. He is a fun little lens,” Evans said.
“It’s an apocalyptic story. The world is coming to an end, and the stakes are really high. He feels every emotion and wants to bring everyone along with the journey, and thinks that he can save the world — and knows that he can save the world. …
“He’s committed to whatever plan he comes up with, even if he doesn't know the outcome yet.”
To get inside the sponge body, Evans has been watching two of the animated episodes every night before bed, taking little freeze frames of facial expressions and body movements, then tracing around them on paper.
“I have this diary full of SpongeBob sketches,” he said. “And then it's, how can I take this little motion and throw it on stage? If that pose is something I like, how does his body (do that)? His body has no bones, so there really are no rules. If I can do it with my body I’m gonna do with my body. Because he’s a cartoon, you can just have fun with him, as long as I don’t hurt myself.”
And then everyone gathered around the table for the interview at Theatre Cedar Rapids laughed, because he was sporting a skinned right knee and a barked-up left shin.
Odegaard, 30, of Cedar Rapids, grew up watching “SpongeBob,” so the musical is full of nostalgic elements for him, but feels very current, he said.
He’s gone all-in for his pink-suited starfish character, even sporting bright pink hair and nail polish — which is very entertaining for his co-workers during their Zoom meetings.
Odegaard works as an IT consultant for a human resources staffing and recruiting company, and his new look even has his boss laughing.
“He was saying the first five minutes of every meeting that he’s been on with me has been monopolized by a discussion over the pink hair,” Odegaard said, adding, “I get to be a walking billboard. I think we sold tickets to the Taco Bell line the other day.”
Patrick is “the aloof friend that is always going to be supportive,” Odegaard said. “But it’s very much an influenceable human. Peer pressure is something that I succumb to.
“So it’s no mistake that you live under a rock,” Evans quipped.
Patrick goes through “a period of waking up, and there’s a period of following along with his friends, but then being led astray, and ultimately making his way back,” Odegaard said, noting that in real-life, he also can be kind of aloof.
“It’s a fun character,” he said. “It’s fun to kind of play around with those parts of me, too, and just let them shine through.”
He also gets to affect a deep, rather “dopey” sound for Patrick, known from TV for saying, “Is mayonnaise an instrument?”
Sandy is the brains of the group, said Kimbrough, 21, of Cedar Rapids, the front office manager at a local hotel.
“Science is her thing,” Kimbrough said of her character. “If you ask her a fact, she will tell you right off the bat. Oh, that rhymed. She is very, very confident.” Sandy also is “the grounding factor, because Patrick is very chaotic and SpongeBob is SpongeBob, and sometimes I have to bring them back to reality.”
Sandy’s into karate, too. “I actually chop a board while we are onstage,” she said, “so look forward to that — it should be fun.”
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