Escape to Margaritaville, the new Broadway musical with songs by Jimmy Buffett, promises much the same experience as the week long tropical resort vacation that it depicts — fun, relaxation, even romance. As with such resorts, the musical, opening at the Marquis, has its disappointments, but it largely delivers; all it asks of you in return is that you put your brain on hold.
Escape to Margaritaville features a fine cast of appealing, undervalued Broadway veterans performing Buffett’s greatest hits and some new songs. For almost 50 years, Buffett has been offering to his fans (self-described Parrot Heads) a pleasing mix of pop, folk, rock, country and Caribbean music, often with whimsical lyrics (Sample song title: “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus.”) Escape to Margaritaville presents 26 of Buffett’s songs. Some of the numbers are more successful than others, but all soar above a plot that veers between predictable and preposterous, and jokey dialogue that ranges from corny to lame.
Tully (the protean Paul Alexander Nolan) is a combination beach bum, local Lothario, talented musician, and employee, along with his friend Brick (Eric Petersen), of the Margaritaville Hotel and Bar on an unspecified Caribbean island. We first see him, guitar in hand, his feet dangling off the dock, figuring out a new song, “Something About A Boat,” until his boss Marley (Rema Webb) tells him to get to work. The set opens up to a reveal a stage full of colorfully-clad ensemble members, dashing about and singing “License to Chill”
It’s a new week and so the old tourists have left and the new ones are arriving. These include Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard), best friends from Cincinnati. Rachel is an environmental scientist who seems incapable of enjoying herself; she plans to analyze the soil in the nearby volcano. Tammy is getting married the following week to a goon named Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart), who is encouraging her to starve herself so that she can fit into a smaller wedding gown in time for their wedding.
Tully is taken with Rachel, and Tammy with Brick, and….let’s just say that by the end of the week, none of them are willing or able to “Breathe in, Breathe Out, Move on.” Conveniently, a volcano begins erupting at the end of the first act, the sole purpose of which seems to be to force everybody to evacuate the island, so that Tully can wind up in Cincinnati, at a bar that Rachel frequents.
There’s more to the plot, which unfolds over the next few years, ultimately undermining the supposed Buffett theme of experiencing the joy of just living in the moment. In any case, the story seems beside the point. The point is the songs.
The songs that work best are the quiet ones, a single singer or at most three, accompanied by acoustic guitar: Andre Ward as Jamal singing the reggae-inspired “Volcano”; “Son of a Son of A Sailor” as a romantic duet between Nolan and Luff; “He Went to Paris,”rather awkwardly squeezed into the plot, but a lovingly rendered ballad by Nolan, Petersen and Don Sparks as a pirate-like J.D. With the exception of Buffett’s signature song, “Margaritaville,” the big numbers don’t fare as well.
Take “Cheeseburgers in Paradise.” When Jimmy Buffett performs that number in concert, it’s upbeat, straight out rock and roll, with the droll lyrics almost a throwaway bonus. Here Lisa Howard as Tammy, defying her controlling fiancé, rises like Peter Pan through the air and lands near a stack of cheeseburgers in a bar in Cincinnati, backed by the ensemble. The whimsy is now in-your-face and feels overdone.
On the other hand, Brick has a fantasy number in a gold-bedecked chorus of tap-dancers that feels underdone – at least for anybody who has seen SpongeBob SquarePants and that musical’s similar number “I’m Not A Loser” composed by They Might Be Giants for Squidward Q. Tentacles, a churlish octopus who loves the spotlight. It’s safe to say that both director Christopher Ashley, the Tony winning director of Come From Away, and the artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, where Escape to Margaritaville debuted last year; and choreographer Kelly Devine, Tony-nominated for her choreography for Come From Away and Rocky, have done better staging.
Still, the musical numbers have the advantage of Buffett’s addictive melodies and fun lyrics. The book is written by Mike O’Malley, who is surely best known as the actor who portrayed Kurt Hummel’s father on the TV series Glee, and Greg Garcia, creator of the TV series My Name is Earl. At one point Tully asks to borrow a guitar from a bar band guitarist in Cincinnati.
“Please don’t break it, I got it for my bar mitzvah,” the guitarist (an adult) says to Tully.
“I’ll be careful,” Tully replies. “And Mazel Tov.”
The most charitable thing I can say about such off-putting dialogue is that the book writers, both making their Broadway debuts, are feeling their way toward writing for a New York theater-going crowd.
I suspect that Parrot Heads will have none of the objections I’ve just expressed about Escape to Margaritaville, especially if they partake of the $16 Margaritas available from the bar, which many of them seemed to be doing. But a caveat, even for them: Escape to Margaritaville is so eager to please that it ends with assault and battery by beach ball. You’ve been warned.
Escape to Margaritaville is on stage at the Marquis Theater (1535 Broadway, entrance on 46th Street, New York NY 10036)
Escape to Margaritaville . Songs by Jimmy Buffett, book by Mike O Malley and Greg Garcia . Directed by Christopher Ashley, choreographed by Kelly Devine, scenic design by Walt Spangler, . costume design by Paul Tazewell, lighting design by Howell Binkley, sound design by Brian Ronan.
Featuring Paul Alexander Nolan as Tully, Alison Luff as Rachel, Lisa Howard as Tammy, Eric Petersen as Brick, Rema Webb as Marley, Don Sparks as J.D., Andre Ward as Jamal, Matt Allen, Tessa Alves, Sara Andreas, Tiffany Adeline Cole, Marjorie Failoni, Samantha Farrow, Steven Good, Angela Grovey, Albert Guerzon, Autumn Guzzardi, Keely Hutton, Justin Keats, Mike Millan, Justin Mortelliti, Ryann Redmond, Julius Anthony Rubio, Nick Sanchez, Ian Michael Stuart, and Brett Thiele. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell