One is a revival, the other is a newcomer. One is irrepressibly silly and the other is poignant.
But both shows are tuneful fables, both use innovative staging to get their point across, both involve real or impending natural disasters, both feature multi-cultural casts and both tell tales about life along, on or under the sea.
No, we're not talking about The Little Mermaid or Mutiny on the Bounty.
We're talking about the Tony award-winning Best Musical revival and the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award-winning Best Musical.
The revival, Once On This Island is a one-act musical with a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, it is set on a French island in the Caribbean Sea. The show includes elements of the Romeo and Juliet story and elements of a fairy tale. It concerns a peasant girl on a tropical island who uses the power of love to bring together people of different social classes. The original Broadway production opened in 1990 and ran for 488 performances.
The new production at the Circle in the Square Theater opened last December and features a gritty in-the-round staging, a sandy surface, real water elements, a live goat, suggestions of voodoo and a decidedly pared-down version of the tropics. This is the island life that you don't see when you stay at once of those fancy Caribbean resorts or visit while on a luxury cruise. In fact, the set is so rusty and grainy and rag-tagged that you might think you ventured into the wrong show. And the story sort of unfolds all around you.
One stormy night on the island, thunder booms, making a small girl cry in fear. To comfort her, the village storytellers tell her the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who falls in love with a grand homme, Daniel Beauxhomme – a story of life, pain, love, grief, faith, and hope. In this story, four gods (consisting of Asaka: Mother of the Earth, Agwé: god of Water, Erzulie: goddess of Love, and Papa Ge: demon of Death) rule an island known as the Jewel of the Antilles where poor peasants worship them (Prologue/"We Dance"). The peasants, "black as night", live on one side of the island, and the grands hommes, lighter-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves, live on the other. One day, Agwe unleashes a terrible storm upon the island, which in turn causes a disastrous flood, wiping out many villages. However, the gods save the life of a little orphan named Ti Moune by placing her in a tree above the flood's waves. She is found and subsequently adopted by the peasants Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian ("One Small Girl").
There's lots more to the story but from this you can get the general idea. Conflict and understanding between and across races, religions and socio-economic classes play a strong role in the narrative. Among the hauntingly beautiful numbers in the show are One Small Girl, Ti Moune, Forever Yours and Why We Tell The Story. And the cast is uniformly excellent, especially Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller as Ti Moune's adopted parents, Isaac Powell as Daniel and Loren Lott as Ti Moune.
But this show is, above all, an acquired taste.
And we have to admit that we are not great fans of theater in-the-round. So much is happening at so many different places and with so much sound bouncing here and there, that the whole thing can be difficult to follow. And while it carries a powerful message of hope, this is not a cheerful show. Still, it has its following and is enjoying a healthy run.
By contrast, SpongeBob Square Pants, the new musical is a sheer, irrepressible, giddy delight. And, it's turned the legendary Palace Theater into a happy, dazzling, deliriously crowd-pleasing neon funhouse. Indeed, the show aptly bills itself as "the Broadway musical for everyone" and that could not be more true just as long as still retain at least an ounce of youthful frivolousness.
The staging of this show is like nothing we've ever seen before and the whole thing works like a finely-tuned piece of machinery. And yet, it unfolds in such a seemingly spontaneous manner that it envelops you in cheerfulness.
Director Tina Landau, whose distinct style and unconventional use of performance spaces are a trademark of her ambitious, ensemble-driven works, is really the driving force behind SpongeBob on Broadway and her hand shows in every element of the production.
Ethan Slater gives one of the best performances ever as SpongeBob and he has deservedly garnered Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Theater World awards. His portrayal is so consistently appealing that it's nothing less than breathtaking. As Squidward, Gavin Lee gives us a classic Broadway sendup in the tradition of Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde. His big ten o'clock number, I'm Not A Loser, positively stops the show. As Patrick, Danny Skinner is a pure delight and he also has his moment in Super Star Sea Savior. And Wesley Taylor is so fiendishly menacing as Plankton that he becomes the culprit you love to hate. But in truth, this is an extraordinary cast throughout -- a huge group of more than 27 with a majority of the actors playing more than one role. And then there's the 19-piece band and so many wondrous special effects and gizmos that the whole thing is nothing less than an ongoing treat for the eyes and ears.
This is a $20 million show with top-notch production values and music by Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, The Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants and Panic! at the Disco, so you're bound to walk out humming the tunes.
Oh, about the story -- well, it really doesn't matter, but here goes: It's all about the Best Day Ever gone wrong, and then in the course of the show, it's all righted again just in the nick of time, and we do mean with literally seconds to spare. You see, life on Bikini Bottom is threatened by a volcanic eruption. Of course, Sponge Bob is absolutely certain that he can save the day even though he has no idea how to go about it. And Patrick is ever ready to help Sponge Bob but he's clueless as well, and lazy. Then there's Plankton who delights in disaster and seeks to benefit from it all and Squidward, who just wants to be a star. Yes, there are various other characters as well, including a shifty mayor and a group of cultish sardines. And the costumes for all of these under-the-sea creatures will blow you away. The show's got so much dayglow that you'll need a visor.
But don't think this is all fun 'n games. If you pay attention, there's ample social commentary here, a dash of satire and helpful lessons to be learned.
Sponge Bob must close on September 16 to make way for construction at the Palace Theater but it will launch a national tour next fall. Still, we urge you to see the original Broadway production and take the whole family. You won't be disappointed!
Postscript: We knew nothing about Sponge Bob before we saw the show. We only knew that it was a TV cartoon show. We were somewhat familiar with the principal character but that was it. It didn't matter. In fact, it was almost better this way. We're instant fans. We love the show!