NEW YORK — Transforming a pop-culture phenomenon into a Broadway musical — especially one that’s dear to the easily inflamed hearts of children or teenagers — is always a tricky business.
Faced with a blend of expectations, doubts, hopes, and outright suspicion, creative teams struggle to fashion a new work from the beloved bones of the old work. Should the stage adaptation primarily focus on delivering a fan-pleasing homage to the original? Or should the adapters simply (ahem) let it go, and infuse the stage version with the spirit of fresh invention, as Julie Taymor did so masterfully with her ravishing, puppet-driven adaptation of “The Lion King’’?
Most adaptations ultimately split the difference between the two approaches. That’s roughly the case with the Broadway adaptations of Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls,’’ Disney’s blockbuster “Frozen,’’ and Nickelodeon’s long-running animated hit “SpongeBob SquarePants.’’
All three of these new musicals are hoping to draw young theatergoers and their parents during school vacation week, and each of them has its strengths. But I found the screwball charms and infectious joy of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical’’ the hardest to resist, with “Mean Girls’’ running a close second and “Frozen’’ third.
The tunes in “SpongeBob SquarePants,’’ playing at the Palace Theatre, are all over the map stylistically, which was inevitable when the score has been cobbled together with contributions from a disparate raft of songwriters and bands, including John Legend, David Bowie, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Brian Eno, Lady Antebellum, The Flaming Lips, Plain White T’s, Steven Tyler, and Joe Perry.
But what unifies the production are its sheer high spirits, exemplified by Ethan Slater, a hitherto unknown 25-year-old who plays the title figure, an endearingly innocent sea sponge who works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab and dreams of becoming the restaurant’s manager. I’m trying to avoid the word “buoyant,’’ so let’s call Slater effervescent. Also inexhaustible; he’s essentially adrenaline in human form.
SpongeBob’s polar opposite, temperament-wise, is cranky neighbor and co-worker Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee, hilarious). What’s the story line, you ask? Well, SpongeBob’s town of Bikini Bottom, rendered like an underwater hallucination at the Palace Theatre by director Tina Landau and her inventive design team, is threatened with destruction by a volcano. Unless, that is, our hero can stop it with the help of best buddy Patrick Star (Danny Skinner, who reminded me of the late, great John Candy), a lumbering and none-too-bright starfish, and another good friend, Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper), a science-minded squirrel.
High school is an aquatic environment of sorts in “Mean Girls’’ — the kind infested with sharks.
Often a musical’s book (i.e. story and dialogue) amounts to not much more than filler, but not when it’s written by Fey. In “Mean Girls,’’ adapted from the movie she scripted and being presented at the August Wilson Theatre, Fey combines an anthropologist’s eye for the tribal rituals and power plays of teenagers with the sharp wit of a satirist and veteran sketch writer. This is one of those rare times when a musical comedy actually lives up to the noun, not just the adjective.
Desperate to fit in at her new school, new kid Cady (Erika Henningsen) falls under the sway of Machiavellian queen bee Regina (Taylor Louderman) and her two adoring acolytes, the poignantly dim Karen (Kate Rockwell) and Gretchen (Ashley Park) — the latter being the one who keeps trying to make “fetch’’ happen. In her quest for loftier social status, Cady turns her back on two genuine friends, Damian (Grey Henson) and Janis (Cambridge native Barrett Wilbert Weed).
I was especially taken with Park and Henson, both of whom are indelibly funny, but the cast is top-notch across the board as “Mean Girls’’ traces Cady’s wayward journey through the wilderness of high school and her eventual return to the core values with which she started.
Some of the song titles suggest the emotional territory traversed by the show: “Where Do You Belong?,’’ “Stupid With Love,’’ “What’s Wrong With Me?,’’ “Someone Gets Hurt,’’ “Fearless.’’ Clever lyrics by Nell Benjamin (“Legally Blonde’’) match up well with the high-octane music by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband). When a show is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon,’’ “Something Rotten!,’’ “The Drowsy Chaperone’’), you know the ensemble is going to have an opportunity to shine, and shine they do in the exuberant dance numbers that enliven “Mean Girls.’’
Of the three adaptations under discussion here, “Frozen’’ registered as the most formulaic. Too many of the dozen new tunes by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (who wrote the songs featured in the film) lack genuine spark; and the production, directed by Michael Grandage, comes across as carefully packaged rather than inspired.
The cast mostly exudes Broadway proficiency, including an elegant Caissie Levy as Elsa, Queen of Arendelle, cursed with a devastatingly icy touch; a quite funny Patti Murin as her sister Anna; and Boston native Greg Hildreth, who attended BU, as Olaf, the lovable snowman. Disney Theatrical Productions doesn’t stint on spectacle, so there’s plenty to look at in the St. James Theatre, whether the action is transpiring in the castle or the mountains. And there is certainly plenty to hear in that electrifying moment many in the audience are waiting for, when Levy cuts loose with a certain power-ballad-and-anthem whose title rhymes with “snow.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.