‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ Broadway Review: Bouncy Tunes Keep Soggy Book Afloat

New show takes a less literal approach to its animated source material than “Shrek” or other recent family musicals

The 2008 Broadway musical “Shrek” required its star Brian d’Arcy James to spend at least two hours in makeup to turn himself into the spitting image of the famed green ogre. To director Tina Landau’s credit, actor Ethan Slater never resembles a yellow sponge that lives in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea in the new musical “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which opened Monday at the Palace Theatre.

Based on the animated Nickelodeon series, “SpongeBob” takes a much less literal approach to its source material than “Shrek” or, for that matter, any number of family musicals of recent seasons.

The onstage SpongeBob wears a yellow shirt, red tie, and plaid pants and, as impersonated by Slater, could pass for the emcee in a G-rated version of “Cabaret.”

Likewise, David Zinn’s costumes for the underwater characters Patrick Star (Danny Skinner), Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris), and Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) turn them into colorfully attired human beings, although Squidward (Gavin Lee) does sport four legs.

Even Zinn’s sets eschew literalism to embrace the low tech. The ready-to-explode volcano that threatens to destroy Bikini Bottom is nothing more than a few tall stacks of packing boxes that have the word “fragile” stamped on them.

It’s all admirably imaginative. What the designs, direction and performances rarely are is magical, inspired, or outrageously fun, although the two Rube Goldberg-like machines that thrust “molten” beach balls onto the stage can be called “ingenious.”

The TV episodes of “SpongeBob” run under 30 minutes. The 2004 movie version clocked in at less than 90 minutes. The Broadway musical runs around two and a half hours, and is severely hampered by Kyle Jarrow’s flat, witless book.

Instead of talking about global warming, the characters joke about “tidal warming,” and for relevance, there are complaints about the dishonest media. (This adult critic did not hear much laughter from the many children in attendance at a Saturday matinee, although they were all much better behaved than the mature crowd that usually frequents Broadway shows at midday.)

What keeps “SpongeBob” afloat are the original songs by Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend and others. They range from gospel lite to ersatz heavy metal, and a few capture the infectious bounce of Joe Raposo’s tunes for the early episodes of “Sesame Street.”