Spongebob Squarepants

Original Cast, 2017 (Masterworks Broadway) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) The Spongebob Squarepants album — recorded following the Chicago tryout, before most of the cast transferred to Broadway — succeeds largely through the strange emotive pull it enacts on audiencess who grew up on Nickelodeon. Has there been a more effectively nostalgic musical for the children of the late ’90s? But with a cast digging into impersonations of the TV show’s voice actors, this recording may not have great appeal for Spongebob neophytes. A bevy of songwriters was brought aboard to contribute individual songs to this score, and without director Tina Landau’s unifying stage vision, all of that genre-hopping makes for a bit of a weird listen. (A Cyndi Lauper bop precedes a hymn of praise from gospel artist Yolanda Adams, for example.) But even if the score as a whole feels piecemeal in this context, there are plenty of buoyantly fun tracks on the album. The opening “Bikini Bottom Day,” by Jonathan Coulton, is an especially whimsical earworm with a convincing musical theater structure. Sara Bareilles surprises with a winningly anthemic pirate waltz (“Dentists hate pirate insurance / Which is why we’ve so many gold teeth”), and no less a personage than John Legend provides the show’s only slow ballad, “Miss You,” a sweet duet. Most of the songs for the supporting characters — Carlos López’s Mr. Krabs, Lilli Cooper’s Sandy, and Nick Blaemire’s Plankton — are skippable, while a friendship song for Spongebob and Patrick, “BFF” by Plain White T’s, pales in comparison to a similarly purposed ditty that was introduced on the TV show, “The F.U.N. Song.” But in the titular role, Ethan Slater infuses his uncanny impression with a lovely warmth. Emmy Raver-Lampman also makes a mighty impression as the high-belting whale Pearl. Arranger and orchestrator Tom Kitt is the real MVP of the album, maintaining a joyfully silly tone rooted in musical theater earnestness throughout while surfing musical styles. The score offers lots of auditory in-jokes for Spongebob fans — even the orchestrations and specific instrumentation choices are delightfully referential. And if Spongebob skeptics may be less than fully invested in the storyline, the recording is produced with a glistening mix that makes for a consistently enjoyable listen. — Dan Rubins