Board of Directors

Florida Rep’s SpongeBob musical brings joy, optimism to Bikini Bottom — and the pandemic

Charles Runnells

Fort Myers News-Press
Landon Maas plays SpongeBob SquarePants in "The SpongeBob Musical."

Nothing gets SpongeBob SquarePants down.

If the cartoon character is anything, he’s a warm ray of sunshine radiating hope, joy and optimism.

That’s what people love about the character — including actor Landon Maas, who plays SpongeBob in Florida Rep Education’s new “The SpongeBob Musical”.

It’s a message that we need now more than ever, Maas says. We’re almost 2½ years into the pandemic, and we could all use a little optimism.

“SpongeBob’s a symbol,” Maas says. “He spreads joy and hope as a character. And for people who come and see the show, it’s like a sign of hope.

“Things will get better, and this fictional cartoon character is here to tell us that.”

Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous: An anthropomorphic sea sponge wearing plaid shorts, suspenders, and a red tie is telling us everything’s going to be OK.

But it’s something director Christina DeCarlo thinks Florida Repertory Theatre audiences are eager to hear.

“Through difficulties, there’s always a brighter side on the other end,” DeCarlo says. “And I definitely think we are looking toward that brighter side as a community … and we’re coming out stronger.”

The show may have debuted on Broadway in 2016, but the colorful, upbeat musical has surprising relevancy in 2022. It’s almost like it was written after the pandemic, not before, DeCarlo says.

Sophia Gurule stars as the squirrel Sandy Cheeks in Florida Rep's "The SpongeBob Musical."

The story involves a volcano about to erupt near the fictional, undersea town of Bikini Bottom. But it could just as easily have been about the pandemic, she says.

“There is a big code orange,” she says. “The government isn’t sure what’s going on. The media isn’t sure what’s going on at the beginning of the show. And all of a sudden, everyone is told that they need to shelter at home. …

“And then we really see how a community handles crisis. And we really see how quick a community is to turn on each other in crisis.”

Of course, there’s more to “The SpongeBob Musical” —  getting its Southwest Florida premiere May 19-28 at Florida Repertory Theatre — than its story of impending doom under the sea.

There’s also colorful set, whimsical costumes and a cast of wacky characters from the beloved Nickelodeon TV show and its movies, including the sea sponge SpongeBob, his squid neighbor Squidward and his buddies Patrick (a starfish) and Sandy Cheeks (a squirrel in an astronaut’s spacesuit).

And they’re all singing and dancing to original pop-rock tunes written by a team of famous songwriters and musical artists. That includes Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady A, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and T.I.

Each song is written in a different style by a different songwriter. And that variety of genres and dancing styles makes the show really fun to perform and watch, Maas says.

“It’s so energetic,” he says.

Landon Maas plays SpongeBob SquarePants in "The SpongeBob Musical."

Speaking of fun, Maas says he’s having a blast playing SpongeBob, too. He considers himself an optimistic person, and he happily lets that spirit shine through onstage.

“No matter what the line, I try to always keep a smile on my face and keep it positive,” he says. “And the only moments where I’m not, the audience can tell it’s a really serious moment. … You really don’t see him down or sad.”

It’s Maas’s own joyful spirit that sold director DeCarlo on casting him as the title character. That happiness and optimism were there from his first audition.

“He had the spirit of SpongeBob,” she says. “It just came to life. The joy kind of came right out of him.”

The geeky, high-pitched SpongeBob voice took longer to get right, though, Maas admits. Especially since his natural speaking voice is lower.

Slowly, though, he managed to find that voice and make it his own — without outright copying the voice from the TV show, movies and original Broadway musical.

“It’s kind of like drawing out certain vowels and emphasizing certain words and a higher pitch,” he says. “It’s such a funny voice to do.”

Just don’t expect SpongeBob to be wearing a giant sponge costume onstage. All of the TV show’s characters have been turned into humanoid versions of the originals.

So instead of a big square sea sponge, Maas’ SpongeBob wears a bright yellow dress shirt along with a red tie, suspenders and plaid shorts.

That makes it a lot easier to march and dance around onstage, Maas admits. “It’s nice. It’s comfortable, too. It’s nice to not be in a big square (laughs).”

DeCarlo hopes audiences leave “The SpongeBob Musical” feeling inspired by SpongeBob and his undying optimism. And maybe having some hope about our own, real-life crisis.

“Everyone has been on such a journey these past two and a half years,” she says. “And everyone has been on this uphill battle and fight to get back to quote-unquote normal.

“I think it’s kind of a universal agreement: We will never get back to our old normal, but it’s now our job as a community to come together and create a new normal and kind of keep going forward.”

Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Email him at crunnells@gannett.com or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), Twitter (@charlesrunnells), and Instagram (@crunnells1).

If you go

What: Florida Rep Education’s “The SpongeBob Musical”

When: May 19-28

Where: Florida Repertory Theatre, 2268 Bay St., downtown Fort Myers

Tickets: $25-$30 ($15 for students)

Info: 332-4488 or floridarepeducation.org