Woodson High School
The absurdity, dynasticism, and pure joy found in animated cartoons is something countless artists have struggled to transfer into our world, a place where body parts refuse to stretch and the laws of physics remain stubbornly indifferent to the whims of comedy. On the stage of Thomas Jefferson High School’s theatre, however, that elusive energy shone through during their production of The SpongeBob Musical. This surprise hit, which premiered at the Oriental Theatre in 2016 before moving to Broadway the very next year, follows Nickelodeon’s world-famous sponge and his friends as they attempt to avert volcanic disaster while their town of Bikini Bottom devolves into apocalyptic-induced panic. In the hands of TJ’s cast and crew, this story resonated not only with zany comedic sequences and high-stakes action, but also the message of friendship and acceptance for which this beloved group of characters are so often praised.
Carrying that emotional heart of the story on their backs was the iconic duo of SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star, portrayed respectively by the exuberant Ella Tysse and the hilarious Sri Vellakkat. Tysse was the embodiment of SpongeBob’s infectious positivity, completely selling a performance that demanded constant physical and vocal exertion. Similarly, the consistent and reliable support Vellakkat, as Patrick, lent his fellow actors, be it through entertaining side-bits with ensemble members or by providing a solid baritone voice during musical numbers, was greatly admirable. It was when these two actors performed together where they were at their strongest. The establishment of their friendship in the heartwarming song “BFF” glowed with comradery, while act two’s “(I Guess I) Miss You” contrasted Tysse’s soaring soprano range with Vellakkat’s rich lower tone beautifully.
Luckily for the lead cast of SpongeBob, they also had two amazing antagonists to play off of: the diabolical duo of Plankton the amoeba (Prajeet Chitty) and his sarcastic computer wife Karen (Grace Shaffer). Chitty and Shaffer’s bizarre, yet strangely endearing love/hate relationship stole the show whenever they attempted to use the town’s crisis to further their own machinations, which was encapsulated in Plankton’s show-stopping rap number, “When the Going Gets Tough.” This number shined thanks to its fast-paced choreography and complexity of Chitty's performance as a self-centered, yet insecure evil genius.
Fleshing out the energetic and vibrant undersea world of Bikini Bottom was an engrossing theme of colorful coral, which was found everywhere in TJ’s production from costumes to makeup to their advertising campaigns. The entire set of SpongeBob, which was designed by Dani Hunter, Sri Vellakkat, Thomas Gay, and Daniel Flores, was completely covered by coral that was made out of a delightful array of found materials which created a breathtaking underwater world that the cast took joy in inhabiting. Pool noodles were sheared into dynamic shapes, crocheted coral pieces sprouted from the set’s base, and barnacles made from aluminum cans wound their ways around the fantastical set.
At its core, what has drawn people to the world of SpongeBob for decades now is the love for their art that the show’s original creators infused into their work. It’s the kind of love that can overcome anything from the tiniest of single-celled mad scientists to the largest and most terrifying of volcanoes. It survived for thirteen seasons of television, a transition to the stage, and now it remains alive in the love that the cast and crew at TJ clearly had for this play and for one another.
Quince Orchard High School
Grab your spatula, make sure you’ve fed your pet sea snail, and get ready to spend the “Best Day Ever” at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s production of The SpongeBob Musical!
With a book by Kyle Jarrow and score by a collection of pop artists (including Panic! at the Disco, Cyndi Lauper, and They Might Be Giants), The SpongeBob Musical opened on Broadway in 2017, earning 12 Tony nominations. The original production was followed by a North American and a UK tour, as well as a special televised performance. Based on the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon, the musical follows SpongeBob SquarePants as a volcanic eruption threatens to destroy his hometown of Bikini Bottom. As friends abandon friends, and the doomsday clock ticks down the hours, SpongeBob must find a way to stop the eruption and save the day.
Ella Tysse gave a delightfully earnest performance as SpongeBob SquarePants. With a bright smile and boundless energy, Tysse clearly conveyed SpongeBob’s optimistic attitude, no matter how frightening the circumstances. Standing in contrast to Tysse’s larger-than-life character was Madheea Eshal as SpongeBob’s friend Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel scientist from Texas. Eshal’s grounded choices nicely complemented Tysse’s animated performance - especially in the upbeat number “Chop to the Top,” where the pair’s synchronized karate chops represented their growing confidence. Rich, clear vocals and a consistent southern accent further strengthened Eshal’s solid performance.
Also notable was Prajeet Chitty as the villainous Plankton, who planned to use Bikini Bottom’s imminent destruction to hypnotize its citizens into loving his Chum Burgers. Chitty displayed an impressive stage presence, winning over townspeople and audience members alike with his evil charisma and impressive rap skills. The show’s ensemble featured strong dancers, who performed student-choreographed numbers such as the hip-hop style “When the Going Gets Tough” and the toe-tapping “I’m Not a Loser” with energy and enthusiasm.
The show’s imaginative technical elements transported audiences straight to Bikini Bottom. Dani Hunter, Sri Vellakkat, Thomas Gay, and Daniel Flores’ eye-catching set transformed the stage into a colorful underwater paradise, featuring glow-in-the-dark coral and decorations made from repurposed household items. These aquatic and recycled elements carried over into retro-inspired costumes (provided by Mayuka Valluri, Zoe Viterbo, Bellana Pachon, and Dylan Truncellito). The team also paid playful tribute to SpongeBob’s cartoon origins with creative pieces such as boxing glove “claws” for Mr. Krabs, and four-legged pants for Squidward to suggest his tentacles. And not to be missed were the contributions of the special effects team (Charles Bucher, Cullan Kelley, and Toan Do), which included live video streams projected on the walls of the theater, and expert use of fog and haze to complement vibrant lighting designs by Ella Clarke, Cullan Kelley, Ella Greene, and Anthony Drozd.
Just as SpongeBob proves himself to be more than “Just a Simple Sponge,” the students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology have put on more than just a simple show. With energy, dedication, and plenty of fun, The SpongeBob Musical is an endearing production that audiences won’t soon forget.