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Comedy is Hard

Danny Skinner and Ethan Slater in Kyle Jarrow’s stage adaptation of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” | JOAN MARCUS

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The “cartooning” of Broadway continues with arrival of the oversized, manic, and beguiling “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.” Based on the hugely popular Nickelodeon animated show about the lives of a variety of sea creatures who live in Bikini Bottom, the show is a typical 23-minute cartoon stretched to two-and-a-half hours, thanks to the addition of songs by artists ranging from Panic! At the Disco to Cyndi Lauper to John Legend and Aerosmith, to name just a few. The effect is that this is more a revue with a loosely structured plot in which Bikini Bottom is threatened by the potential explosion of the volcano Mount Humongous. With a combination of pluck and silliness, SpongeBob discovers he’s a hero and saves the day.

There are a few subtle political messages woven through, such as the notion that “science will save us,” warnings about the dangers of nationalism and fear of “the other,” and a gently needling criticism of cults and unfounded belief, which in the book by Kyle Jarrow honors the original show while adding some depth, sophistication and — dare I say it? — intelligence to the proceedings.

Designer David Zinn has transformed the Palace into a deliciously garish world featuring the trademark Nickelodeon colors of electric green and blazing orange, to the point where it looks as though one has stepped through the screen and into Bikini Bottom.

“SpongeBob” brings a cartoon to life, while two classics misfire

The characters are played by real people, thankfully not in cartoon costumes. Even so, they are instantly recognizable for those who know the show. In addition to SpongeBob, the principals include his BFF Patrick the Starfish, his employer Mr. Krabs, owner of the Krusty Krab, the perennially put out Squidward Q. Tentacles, and the villainous Sheldon Plankton, Mr. Krab’s competitor in the restaurant business as owner of the Chum Bucket. There is also Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel who as the outsider is a threat. We will not entertain questions about how all these organisms coexist. It’s a cartoon. Go with it.

Tina Landau directs with exuberance, bringing the world to life in wonderfully innovative ways. Freed from the need to be logical or realistic, she does wonderful things with stepladders, cardboard boxes, and platforms and makes the most of the talents of one of the most engaging companies to hit the stage in a while. Danny Skinner gives a breakout performance as Patrick, the dim but kind starfish, adored and worshipped by the minnows who see his inanities as deep. Gavin Lee as Squidward proves himself a delightfully old school musical comedy star, stopping the show with the production number “I’m Not a Loser.” Wesley Taylor is kid-friendly silly/ evil as Plankton, and Lilli Cooper is terrific as Sandy Cheeks. The whole evening however, turns on the dazzling performance by Ethan Slater in the title role. He has the voice, the walk, and the irrepressible optimism of SpongeBob down, all complemented by outstanding singing and physicality that capture the character’s inherent goodness in the midst of a crazy world — a familiar comedy trope.

It’s the clever mash-up of styles and the tweaking of the set-up’s familiarity with ingenious originality that make this show work so endearingly and create such a splash.

Emily Young in the Fiasco production of “Twelfth Night,” directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld at CSC through January 6. | JOAN MARCUS

Of all Shakespeare’s comedies, “Twelfth Night” is one of the most resilient and hardest to wreck. Don’t be deceived; it’s also difficult to do well. Theatergoers may remember Daniel Sullivan’s 2009 production in Central Park and Mark Rylance’s 2013 triumph, two productions that set the bar high for staging this play. Unfortunately, the rather lackluster Fiasco production now at CSC is a workmanlike reading of the play that honors the script but brings nothing much to it. Virtually uncut, it feels academic and ponderous.

Set on a largely bare stage with the hackneyed props-in-a-box conceit, the play is directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld without focus or clarity or point of view. The comedy largely falls flat, where any attempt is made at all.

The company — which includes Brody as Orsino, Emily Young as Viola, Jesse Austrian as Olivia, Paul L. Coffey as Malvolio, and Steinfeld as Feste — does well enough with their parts but imbue them with nothing either special or unique. What works in their performances comes directly from the script.

Paco Tolson is completely lost as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Andy Grotelueschen as Sir Toby Belch seems to have phoned in his performance.

“Twelfth Night” is supposed to be a romp, full of double entendres and opportunities for sight gags as the twins are mistaken for one another and tricks are played on Malvolio. It’s not enough to add contemporary gestures and bits, which may get laughs but feel gimmicky and unearned. In this production, there is no romping at all; it’s a rather long, dull slog through Illyria.

Kate Hammill and Jason O’Connell in Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” directed by Amanda Dehnert, at the Cherry Lane through January 6. | JAMES LEYNSE

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” now at the Cherry Lane is a high-energy spin through one of the most beloved novels of the early 19th century. But to what end? Hamill has largely deconstructed the novel and replaced the highly structured world Jane Austen reflected with a kind of crazed, perpetual motion machine that is entertaining but largely obscures or devalues the serious undertones of the period’s prototypical comic novel.

Austen wrote at a time when romantic love was assuming more importance in a culture and marrying for financial reasons alone was anathema to young women. The Bennet family at the center of the story needs the infusion of capital an advantageous marriage would bring to avoid losing their estate when the patriarch dies. Obsessed with getting her daughters married well, Mrs. Bennet sees the prospects of Jane the eldest dim and her focus shifts to Elizabeth in the hopes she’ll marry the “odious Mr. Collins” to save the family fortune. Elizabeth, full of ideas about how these things should work, refuses and also rejects the wealthy Mr. Darcy because she thinks he’s a prig. He is, but, we later learn, he is also an honorable man. With Elizabeth’s faulty prejudice revealed and Darcy’s pride taken down a peg of two, the couple can meet on equal ground as lovers and partners… and shore up the finances, too.

What Hamill has done in her frenzied adaptation undermines the serious parts of the tale while rendering the comedy as instead strident. The play is best when the characters simply speak Austen’s words without the clanging of bells, racing about the stage, and high-pitched screeching intended to indicate teenage girls. The company is personable and appealing and includes Hamill as Elizabeth and Jason O’Connell as Darcy. With much of the cast playing multiple parts, there are unfortunate cheap laughs as men play women and so forth.

The essential problem, though, is that director Amanda Dehnert never gives the audience a clear understanding of why her characters are engaged in all this frantic motion in the first place. And that, whether you’re a casual reader or a scholar, is something Austen never would have stood for. One always knows exactly what she’s about, and her pointed insights are never wasted. Hamill has taken Austen and done a “SpongeBob” number on her, reducing “Pride and Prejudice” to superficial nonsense that just flops about. None of us, indeed including Austen, is any better for it.


SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL | Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at. W. 47th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | 39-$159 at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission

TWELFTH NIGHT | Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. | Through Jan. 6: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. (some schedule variation) | $61-$126 at web.ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE | Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., btwn. Bedford & Barrow Sts. | Through Jan. 6: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | $82-$152;at web.ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., 30 min., with intermission

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