by Andres Felix Romero
Sitting in my seat in the Van Duzer Theatre’s mezzanine, I was anxious to see how a cartoon favorite such as SpongeBob Squarepants would be brought to life on stage. The moment that curtains opened to SpongeBob’s pineapple, Patrick’s rock and Squidward’s home between them, it felt like my childhood was alive and well in front of my eyes. I knew from that moment this show would be an experience.
After a five year hiatus, local theater group Humboldt Light and Opera Company (HLOC) made its comeback on the Cal Poly campus in the best way possible, with its rendition of the Broadway show The SpongeBob Musical. HLOC’s performance and production of the musical is a love letter from Humboldt, to Humboldt.
SpongeBob Squarepants creator Stephen Hillenburg earned his Marine Science bachelor and Art minor at Humboldt State University. Many of the musical’s cast and crew are Humboldt alumni or current faculty and staff, and they certainly did Hillenburg’s legacy justice.
The musical’s director, Carol Ryder was ecstatic to return to the Van Duzer, as this is the only locale in the area that could accommodate a Broadway musical like SpongeBob.
“This venue is the only theater where we can do a show like this because it’s built as a theater and not a concert hall,” Ryde said, “We have all of the technical aspects that John Van Duzer researched available.”
The show itself was spectacular. Everything from the prop and costume design to sound production made it feel like an episode of the beloved cartoon brought to life. The story was simple and easy to understand, with high stakes to keep the plot fresh. I was pleasantly surprised to see the story tackle heavier themes such as persecution, distrust of government, and media spreading hysteria in non-polarizing or heavy-handed ways.
Much of the song and dance was erratic, just like the cartoon, but it always felt precise and never disorganized or out of hand. My favorite song was the track that kicked off Act II, Poor Pirates, performed by Patchy the Pirate who was played by Humboldt Professor Larry Pits.
The audio and visual gags brought that show to life. Much of the action was accompanied by sound effects straight from the cartoon, such as Pearl’s stomps and SpongeBob’s squeaky shoes. There were a few hilarious visual gags that were great callbacks to the cartoon as well. Patrick Star, played by Tristin Roberts, broke the fourth wall when he asked the live orchestra leader if mayonnaise was an instrument. The leader’s response? Tossing a tub of mayonnaise for Patrick to rock on with during one of the final musical numbers.
The costume designers were able to capture the essence of each character. Every costume incorporated the iconic color schemes and features of the character. The ensemble outfits were impressive as well. Just like the background characters from the show, each costume looked unique but never distracted from the action of the main characters.
The most impressive costume by far was that of Squidward Tentacles, played by Bill Ryder. The outfit consisted of an extra pair of legs built by the actor himself, to give the impression of eight limbs. I was awed to see Squidward dance and move with ease on stage and how realistic the legs moved along with him.
Each character’s performance was outstanding and on point. Although the star of the musical is the titular sponge played by James Gadd (who definitely knows how to hold a note), Patrick Star was the one that stole the show for me. Patrick’s actor looked stellar in his costume, with a bright pink shirt and Hawaiian overshirt, paired with his iconic green and purple-flower shorts. Robert’s mannerisms and voice felt like I was truly watching the famous pink starfish in human form.
My favorite part of the show was by far the set design. LED lights in the shape of the flower clouds from the show illuminated the stage, and the prop design had a genius DIY feel that added to the cartoonish atmosphere. Items as simple as old plastic water bottles were creatively strung together and hung to give the impression of flowing water. To create the effect of the corals often spotted in the background of the cartoon, cut-up pool noodles were used.
The most impressive aspect of the show and production to me wasn’t necessarily what was on the stage, but what went on behind the scenes. I had the opportunity to go backstage and see some of the props and sets up close, as well as meet much of the cast and crew.
I discovered how many of the actors built the props and costumes themselves. Plankton’s actor, played by Humboldt Professor Casey Vaughn, broke down how he hand-built my favorite prop, the adorable life-sized Gary the Snail. I also saw everyone from the most minor of the ensemble to the lead roles helping to break down the set and take props home. Everyone was laughing, joking and happy to be among each other. Ensemble actor Isabella Green highlighted the support the cast and crew received from everyone present, including the lead actors.
“There’s a lot of older people who are really talented, like Fiona [Gadd-Ryder],” Green said. “But they don’t treat us like we’re different. They treat us with respect and try to help wherever they can. In the end, they treat us like we’re equal.”
There was something beautiful and full circle about Hillenburg’s creation, which in part was inspired by the dome-shaped greenhouse only blocks away from my seat, alive and in the flesh making hundreds in the audience entertained. It was a beautiful lesson in how our actions and legacies have the power to bring laughter and joy to others. Gadd shared a similar attitude when he was asked how it felt to play a revered character as SpongeBob Squarepants.
“It was a blessing and honor…”Gadd said. “It was a mountainous excursion as well because it is something that represents so much positivity and optimism in today’s world.”