Stephen Hillenburg attended what was then Humboldt State University in the early 1980s, about a decade before I did. He had a more impressive major than myself: natural resource planning and interpretation, better known as NRPI (all the formidable science degrees on that campus seem to have acronyms) with an emphasis in marine biology. But the seed of future success was in his studio art minor. He took a love born of Humboldt County's tide pools and rode it to create an animated show called SpongeBob SquarePants. At the time of his death from ALS in 2018, having built a media juggernaut and accordant empire, he may have been the school's most prominent alumnus.
The SpongeBob Musical premiered in 2016 and has garnered nominations for nearly a dozen Tonys. The Humboldt Light Opera Co. wisely chose the undersea charmer, in a lavish production, to be its annual production for the year that marks its 50th anniversary.
As you know — either from your kids or by simply living in this century as an adult — SpongeBob is a plucky and upbeat yellow sea sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea. He works as a fry cook at a restaurant called the Krusty Krab, and all these environs are part of the undersea community of Bikini Bottom, which Hillenburg brought to great cheeky life in the TV show. James Gadd ably holds this lead role in HLOC's production. Every hero needs a best pal and comic relief, and Tristan Roberts leans into the role of starfish Patrick Star with great zeal.
After a smashing opening number ("Bikini Bottom Day"), the unifying dramatic premise arrives in the form of suddenly active undersea volcano that goes by the name of Mt. Humongous. Among the many colorful aquatic denizens of Bikini Bottom, Sandy Cheeks (Fiona Ryder), a Texas-accented squirrel and good pal of SpongeBob acts as a sort of researcher in an undersea suit. Sandy is a Spock-like logical outsider to this community, that is if Spock were a folksy female and in possession of an amazing singing voice, which Ryder certainly has.
Does The Spongebob Musical have a couple musical numbers that could be ditched over its two-hour-plus running time? Sure. But HLOC's annual summer productions put on splashy shows with casts of 40-50 people, and this one lives up to the tradition. Also, costume designers Carol Ryder (who also directed) and Elizabeth Souza deserve credit for the amazing color and inventiveness of their work. I mean, have you ever looked in a tide pool or seen undersea photography of schools of fish? The sea is a dazzling place and they've brought the color and texture to the stage.
The play has a lot of the huff and puff that big Broadway-born productions have these days, but at the same time it maintains the HLOC touch, with local theater kids and teens in small roles or as extras. "(Just a) Simple Sponge" and "I Guess I Miss You" are pretty damn memorable numbers in the first and second acts, respectively. And to remind us just how big the SpongeBob phenomenon is, songs peppering the play were composed by no less than Cyndi Lauper, They Might Be Giants, John Legend and our own Sara Bareilles.
The night I attended, the show held the young and old rapt despite the length, which speaks well for the energy of the performers and direction even more than the original material. Though props also go to the creator, once a local college student. Bosses of Cal Poly Humboldt, as part of all this building and expansion, it really behooves you to name a building after one of your most famous grads — perhaps Hillenburg Hall.
Humboldt Light Opera Company's production of The Spongebob Musical plays at the Van Duzer Theatre Fridays at 7 p.m. through Aug. 18, with matinees at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 13 and Saturday, Aug. 19. Call (707) 630-5013 or visit hloc.org.
David Jervis (he/him) is an Arcata-based freelance writer and editor.
The Arcata Playhouse goes through the funhouse mirror with a pair of circus performers in the interactive and acrobatic As the World Rises and Falls on Friday, Aug. 11, at 8 p.m. Visit playhousearts.com or call (707) 822-1575.
Pintauro: An Evening of One Acts runs Aug. 18 through Sept. 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre with wide-ranging work by the Catholic priest and playwright. Visit ncrt.net or call (707) 442-6278.
Celebrate strike season with Lysistrata, a contemporary adaptation of Aristophanes' sassy satire, at North Coast Repertory Theatre Aug. 25 through Sept. 24. Visit ncrt.net or call (707) 442-6278.