Another show that the whole Showstoppers society should be very proud of
Attempting to put on The SpongeBob Musical (complete with iconic characters, an all-star-composer soundtrack, and terrifying tech requirements) is a challenge that most wouldn’t really bother attempting when they just have a rigged up lecture theatre, minimal budget, and a completely unknown group of people to choose their cast from. But, hey, you just try to tell Southampton University’s performing arts societies that something ‘can’t be done’. They might well now point you in the direction of Showstoppers’ latest production to tell you otherwise.
After a tantalising two-year wait following its announcement on Twitter (presently X), The SpongeBob Musical premiered in Chicago (USA) in the summer of 2016, before opening at Broadway at the end of the following year. It features a host of original songs by some surprisingly massive stars, including John Legend, Panic! at the Disco and David Bowie. It ran on Broadway until 2018, where it was followed by a COVID-cancelled national tour. After making its way around Germany on a tour in 2022, then in the UK this year, it has finally landed on the stage that marks the jewel in the crown for any musical or stage play. The creators of this musical (and even SpongeBob itself) can be satisfied with its appearance at the prestigious venue of The Annex Theatre.
Opening a show with a pirate (Mac BT) running onto the stage and grabbing someone’s phone before being arrested by the police isn’t what you’d call an orthodox approach to opening a musical, but I suppose that’s SpongeBob for you. I was lucky enough to sit close enough to the directing team to see their reactions as they watched the show come to life in front of an audience for the first time. Their excitement was bubbling furiously as the first number reached its climax. The entire ensemble sounded fantastic as the cast showcased their vocal talent. They made their musical directors (Sophie LeDuc and Cerys May) proud, as Sophie stood with the band as their conductor and Cerys watched on from their piano beside her. The confidence that these two have clearly instilled as both principles and ensemble softly sang, belted, and even rapped though their numbers gave them a musical energy fit for any stage. It was clear that the oh-so-easy trap of having disinterested background actors had been polished out with vigour by the show’s directors, Tom O’Brien and Isabel Scott. Every actor gave it their all to craft every scene they were in, even making the audience look around in terror as they all ran around to avoid falling boulders, rumbling volcanos, or Pearl (despite sound effects often being either too quiet or completely missing).
It was terrifying events like this, caused by the nearby active volcano ‘Mount Humongous’, that our heroes (and villains (and whatever the sardines are)) have to contend with to save their town of Bikini Bottom. The hilarious Toby Walden caught us all by surprise (and his wasn’t the only one) with his perfect Patrick impression, delivering the pink starfish’s monotone joy that we have all gotten to know so well for years, even if it was decidedly disturbing when he pulled his hat off (I had assumed that was supposed to physically be part of his head). He managed to prove my description of his ‘monotone’ voice wrong when it came to the singing however, somehow weaving Patrick’s voice into silly, senseless and sometimes even sweet songs. Naomi Park brought a brilliant balance of excited and emotional to Sandy as she ran around concocting a solution to the volcanic problem Bikini Bottom faced as some of its population tried to force her out for being ‘other’. I always got the impression during her performance, even during those positive moments of invention or reassurance, that there was always a deeper sadness of not being able to fit in. I’ll never see squirrels the same way again.
What I didn’t expect from Lily Ong’s Squidward was a much more overtly sassy performance than we’re usually used to seeing. What I expected even less was to enjoy super-sassy-Squidward as much as I did – and Lily managed to sass-up the performance without taking away any of Squidward’s constantly-annoyed charm. She managed to keep this voice whilst hitting every note in the blue fella’s songs as well; it’s a pretty big feat to make that shaky, nasally voice really rather good. James Stark’s Mr Krabs scuttled onto $tage $hifting a $uperb amount of maniacal, money-loving stage presence into every scene, constantly reminding us he cared about nothing other than money, until he finally heard his daughter Pearl sing. I imagine it’s both flattering and daunting to be cast as a character that’s supposed to shock the entire town with their incredible singing voice, but it’s a well deserved gasp from the townsfolk that Milly Thurgood gets. Miko Lisiak’s Plankton draws out the gasps for a completely different reason as the town eventually discovers that his plan to ‘save them all’ was indeed evil all along. Gasp splutter gasp. Miko delivered a mightily impressive rap while I’m sure the directing team held their breath. It was an incredibly yet suitably unique performance alongside his W.I.F.E. Karen, played by Kiera Bonetta. Their chemistry was electric, which probably isn’t really what you want in an underwater environment, but I didn’t mention it to them. I hope they survive until the end of the show’s run because they make a thoroughly enjoyable pairing, both with delightful performances in their own right.
Personally, I would have to say that the standout performance of the evening was the lovable yellow sponge – Nora Shields herself. Nora’s energy as SpongeBob never missed a beat, not even faltering when something went wrong. I’m fairly sure the theatre could catch fire and we’d all be told to leave by a still-in-character SpongeBob – sorry, Nora playing SpongeBob (I think?) – and then we’d have to all stand outside as the directors furiously tried to hypnotise her out of her performance. In all seriousness, her unfaltering command over her character was silly, funny, heart-wrenching and more, and her committed interactions with the other actors onstage elevated this even further. She accompanied this performance with a fantastic vocal performance and some dedicated dancing. Come to think of it, maybe it is SpongeBob that plays Nora.
Speaking of dancing, the hand-raising leg-snapping sardine-slapping choreo work that Destiny Thomas and Belle Priestley crafted was a joy to watch at all times, and the cast pulled off some pretty difficult sequences with all the energy and confidence that characterised the show. The fabulous sardines (Izzy Saunders, Alexia Ambekar and Suzie Knocks) turned up a number of times to front up the ensemble accompaniment and impressed every time. My personal favourite bits of choreography were the synchronous, swaggering, spinning accompaniments to Plankton’s ‘When the Going Gets Tough’, the similarly spangling Squidward clones that danced alongside the clarinet-wielding fiend in ‘I’m Not a Loser’, and of course the excellent spongework of ‘(Just a) Simple Sponge’. Stage Soc rose to the challenge to allow the meticulously crafted ensemble work to tell a story using sponges illuminated by ultraviolet lights – giving them an ability to form all sorts of shapes – including Mr Krabs’ face! Excellent work from all.
Dennis Hughes was a particular highlight as Larry the Lobster, and I’m fairly sure that he might actually be part-cartoon. Either that, or he can just move his face more than any man living. Suzie was joined by Sasha Kavanagh and Rosana Cano Grant to form the Electric Skate trio. They rocked onto the stage, made us all laugh, blew apart Squidward’s dream, then rocked straight back off. Daisy Wallace as Perch Perkins has convinced me she should take up a job as an announcer and Imogen Norman as the Mayor convinced me that she shouldn’t take up a job in politics. They were joined on stage by the ever-beaming Rosa Johnson, the ever-twirling Yueying Tang and the occasionally-meowing Poppy Smith to form an ensemble that held the stage firmly together when they had to, and heartily livened up the larger scenes as well.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the work of the technical directors (Ellie Lawley and Simon Ruddock) and the rest of Stage Soc in bringing the lecture theatre to life. The tricky tech of opening night flowed remarkably well, barring some issues with quiet/missing audio or crackling mics. Their construction skills were back on show as the backdrop towers of Bikini Bottom were rolled around to create the volcano of ‘Mount Humongous’. They even managed to have Hawaiian shirt-clad crew spin them around the stage as the volcano rumbled, with the actors on top clearly having full confidence in their handiwork. The SpongeBob-style LEDs at the back also wonderfully served to spice up the look of the stage. What are those shapes anyway? Splashes? An unknown sea creature? I genuinely have no idea.
Showstoppers’ latest show was a massive success. Tom, Isabel, Sophie, Cerys, Destiny, Belle and the whole production team should be incredibly proud of what they’ve managed to put together. Showstoppers as a whole will be delighted to welcome the fabulously talented band of freshers that make up their cast into the society. They continue to impress with their productions, pushing The Annex Theatre (and I’m sure their budgets) to the absolute limit, while all, of course, continuing with their university degrees.
The University of Southampton’s Showstoppers return in Feburary with ‘Little Shop of Horrors’. Keep up to date with their productions here.