Have you ever stared into an auditorium at 6:30 p.m., at an audience bathed in blue light, with every third seat occupied by a child and the rest by parents who know not what to expect but only to be breathlessly expectant? BABY SHARK LIVE, the marquee outside had read. Larger people in puffer jackets were clutching smaller people in puffer jackets, themselves clutching even smaller puffy dolls in the form of Baby Shark, his friend Hogi, and, of course, the rubicund crown-wearing fox, Pinkfong. Inside the hall, there’s so much squirming it looks like television snow; so much noise it sounds like static. Most children seem to be under 2 and therefore — even before the show starts — gaze at the gilt decorations of the Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue, the bright stage lights, and the dancers carrying giant sea creatures who prance in the aisles with a cute-ass rictus of blank terror or absolute joy. It’s hard to tell which. Parents, too, are dumbstruck. Both meet at the intersection of apprehension and hope, though on opposite sides of the street. And then, the house lights dim and a silhouette of a character dressed in a large foam shark costume stands center stage in front of a blinding white light and the doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo of the “Baby Shark” chorus starts, and man: Dylan, Royal Albert Hall. Beatles, roof of Apple Records. Dion. Vegas. No joke. The air is electric.
For the uninitiated: “Baby Shark” is a song from the internet. It’s a song about a family of sharks, including parents, grandparents, and, most important, a baby shark. The video has been viewed nearly 4 billion times. It is catchy, as catchy as T.I. or TB. It was constructed by SmartStudy, a Korean educational entertainment company, and it conforms to some unholy golden ratio of music theory that cracks kids’ brains. Naturally, there are brand extensions, including plushies, videos, clothing, bath toys, and this touring show, Baby Shark Live! It’s produced by Round Room Presents, the same company behind PJ Masks Live!, Blippi Live!, and also, strangely, Mandela: The Official Exhibition. A two-minute video made into an 80-minute extravaganza, a crew of 50, a tour of 100 cities. Most dates, like this one, are sold out.
The joke I heard a thousand times before I went to see Baby Shark Live! is, “Do they just play ‘Baby Shark’ a hundred times?” and the answer is no, they do not. There is a story but, like an extended coccyx, it’s merely vestigial: Pinkfong, a pink fox, and her friend, Hogi, a mint-and-beige hedgehog, are on a mission to find Baby Shark, their friend. Along the way, they confront challenges, including monkeys jumping on beds and buses whose wheels must go around. The relevant songs are sung, but woven through is the do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do of “Baby Shark,” which functions almost as a Wagnerian leitmotif, an audio breadcrumb, a Tantalean tease. Give us the shark! We want the shark! (Now if I give you the funk, you gon’ take it?)
So we wait and wait. Kids are enraptured. Many parents stare at their phones, either filming the stage or their child’s awe. On and on Hogi and Pinkfong search. They go to the jungle. They go to the sea. And then, toward the end of the first act, the leitmotif returns, but this time it blossoms: Baby Shark has been found, and the song commences.
For the children in the audience, the moment is ecstatic, but only mildly so. The show — any show at this level, at this hour — is already an 11. How much higher can they soar? As a matter of self-preservation, everyone under 5 has gone catatonic with wonder about ten minutes in. Among the parents, even more phones come out, and videos are made to be played later, to commiserating co-workers at coffee breaks or during tantrums at home.
The song ends and the house lights abruptly come on. It’s intermission. I take a lap around the perimeter. You might think this sounds like a nightmare, a Señor Frog’s for children, but then again, 90 percent of what you do with your kid sounds like a nightmare, too. I’ve been “playing” Yu-Gi-Oh with my 7-year old for three years. He doesn’t know the rules. I don’t know the rules. All I know is I always lose and he howls that I’m not summoning my characters correctly. My 8-year-old son loves Imagine Dragons, specifically a song called “Believer.” And let me tell you, “Baby Shark” is Brian Eno compared to Dan Reynolds.
Joy and love are the ballast against terrible taste, and what I find at the Kings Theatre is pure joy. Za Allman, 22, is there with his daughter Zuri, 1. They live nearby, in Flatbush. “I listen to this all day,” says Za, “but she loves it.” This is both Za and Zuri’s first concert. “I’ve never actually been to one before,” he says. “I like it.” A few rows back, the entire Humphreys family is here in a suite of T-shirts: Laasia (Mommy Shark) and her husband, Kasim (Daddy Shark); Rob (Grandpa Shark); and Tammy (Grandma Shark), who holds Skye (Baby Shark). “She’s our first daughter,” says Laasia (pronounced la-Asia), giddily. “We’d do anything for her.” On the far side of the house — near the sizable stroller depot — I find Allison Vasquez, 17, and her grandmother, Martha, 87. Martha doesn’t speak much English, but when I ask her what she liked about the show, she rasps “Musica!”
Out in the lobby, Lydia, the bartender, is doing brisk business in popcorn and pretzels. “We moved a lot of vodka too,” she admits. Waiting in line are Blanca and Adam Stempl, who had traveled from Soho. They’re there with Paloma, 2. How many times had they listened to “Baby Shark”? I ask. “Five hundred,” says Adam. Blanca pulls a face. “Five hundred?” she asks. “Are you crazy? Maybe that’s because you go to work every day.” “Five thousand?” he tries again. “Five million,” she says.
By the second act, we’re past a lot of regular bedtimes. The thin membrane that separates tired toddler trance from absolute meltdown begins to rupture. There are more shrieks than in the first half, though, to be honest, with the music so loud, one can hardly tell. There’s a steady stream of parents and kids calling it a night, but if the characters on stage mind – and it’s hard to tell, through the gigantic foam costumes – they don’t show it. The final number is, hardly surprisingly, another rendition of “Baby Shark,” though with somewhat fuller instrumentation and Gaspar Noé levels of trippy lights. By the finale, exhaustion and ecstasy had been bone-fused. An 80-minute show for a 2-year-old is like a 24-hour rave for an adult. After the lights went up, there was a scrum near the stroller check. In the lobby, families lingered, still adjusting to the relative calm. Clearly they had been through something.
Outside the theater, I find Kenneth Cohn, standing in the cold in a winter jacket with a pack of Newports in his pocket. He drove down from New Haven to sell light-up wands and swords for $10 a pop. “That’s half as much as they sell ’em for inside,” he tells me. “I’ve sold 21 so far,” Cohn says.
“It’s been a good night,” he says, “A good night.” And the thing is, he’s absolutely right.