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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Escape to Margaritaville
Oriental Theatre
Review by John Olson|

Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan, and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Escape to Margaritaville, employing the songbook of singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, is the sort of piece people might excuse or dismiss as "for fans only," so let me disclose up front that I am a devoted fan of this artist. But while one can hardly blame Mr. Buffett or the producers of the show for wanting to create another vehicle to further monetize and build support for his considerable songbook, it seems fair to say that if they're going to do that through a musical play/comedy, it ought to, at its heart, be a good play. While bookwriters Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley have come up with a plotline that plausibly strings together 27 of Buffett's songs, they fail to create characters and conflict in which the audience can become invested. This is even more disappointing because the script has some promising ideas that might have been developed more satisfyingly.

Taking its cue from Buffett's greatest hit, "Margaritaville," Garcia and O'Malley imagine an island resort of that name—the kind of resort Buffett has written about in some of his songs, a place where we sing his songs while on vacation or revisit in an imaginary vacation while singing hem back home. Garcia and O'Malley further paint their resort as one that's down on its heels. Not a bad concept, and one that Herman Wouk used to some success in his novel "Don't Stop the Carnival," which he adapted as a less successful musical with Buffett in the late 1990s. But after a few jokes early in the script about broken icemakers and the like, Garcia and O'Malley do little with that premise.

Our leading man is Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), a singer-songwriter employed at Margaritaville who is also the resort's resident Lothario—loving and then happily being left by female guests at the end of their brief stay. He's possibly inspired by Buffett himself, who toiled as a singer-songwriter in Key West bars before earning his first recording contract. Buffett was surely a more interesting person at that stage of his life than Tully, who lacks ambition and confidence in his art and is portrayed as sort of a dimwit. This long-time womanizer falls all too easily for the newly arrived guest Rachel (Alison Luff), a workaholic scientist from Cincinnati. Rachel—the most original and interesting character in the piece, and winningly played by Luff—defies traditional expectations by being the lover quite ready to write off the week-long fling as a vacation affair and head back home to her work. The idea of a scheming Casanova finding the tables turned as he falls for his mark has worked quite well before in classic musicals—Guys and Dolls and The Music Man come to mind—but here the affair and Tully's transformation happen mostly offstage while the action focuses on the secondary characters.

In classic Rodgers and Hammerstein fashion, we have a secondary romantic couple: Rachel's friend Tammy, played by Lisa Howard, and Tully's bartender buddy Brick (as in "dumb-as-a-"), played by Eric Petersen. Rachel has accompanied Tammy to Margaritaville for a bachelorette party of sorts (oddly, just the two of them) before she marries the unworthy and possibly abusive high school sweetheart who thinks she needs to lose weight. When the plus-size Brick thinks she's perfect as she is, we know who she's meant to end up with. The idea of finding a soul mate while travelling is a well-worn and reliable plot device (e.g. Do I Hear a Waltz, the film Titanic). The stakes are higher for Tammy and Brick than for Tully and Rachel, but there's a light and almost condescending tone toward them, as if their being less attractive than the other couple makes them somehow less important.

Following the R&H formula, we have a third comic couple: the proprietor Marley (Rema Webb), a woman of color who in attitude seems descended from South Pacific's Bloody Mary; and J.D. (Don Sparks), a septuagenarian who claims to have had a colorful life and has romantic designs on Marley. J.D. is seen mostly as a drunken old lecher until well into act two, when we get one of the show's few moments of tenderness as Tully and Brick learn the facts of J.D.'s life.

Most people who know anything of Jimmy Buffett probably know him best as the singer-songwriter of "Margaritaville" and other party songs evoking the imagery of beaches and beachfront bars. He is that, but his work goes deeper than you might think. The reason his songs resonate so deeply with so many is that his lyrics acknowledge the need to relax—the desire to have a balanced life, but even more than that—to connect with our true and better selves as well as with others, to have new experiences and to reflect on past ones. There are moments when Escape to Margaritaville captures some of that feeling.

It opens promisingly enough with Tully alone on stage singing the introspective "A Pirate Looks at Forty," suggesting a more complex character than he proves to be in the following scenes where he appears to be a not-so-bright lounge singer. Rachel's solo "It's My Job," in which she explains the importance of her work to her life, works nicely as well and her character is developed consistent with that theme. And in the second act, when Tully and Brick learn more about J.D.'s past life, they begin to appreciate the man's history in the song, "He Went to Paris." It's a sweet ballad about a man looking back on a long life that belatedly gives us empathy for this character who has been buffoonish in the script up to that point. The writers missed an opportunity to establish a more likable character by making short shrift of J.D.'s first act "Last Mango in Paris," an upbeat song that extols life experiences and touts the need to keep having them.

Buffett has spoken frequently of his fans' expectations at concerts to hear all of his eight or ten most popular songs. It seems that thinking has influenced the creation of this show, with the bookwriters struggling to get to the next song as quickly as possible. The song selection, by the way, is well curated in this Parrothead's eyes. But if songs are going to spawn musicals today, rather than as in the Golden Age when musicals spawned hit songs, the scripts ought to earn those moments—and still create the sense that the characters are feeling emotions too big to be expressed through words alone. That just doesn't happen much here. And even when it does, the songs are in some cases truncated to make room for the next song rather than having the time to fully develop the emotions within.

Instead, the producers and creative team have gone for a silly, happy show. That would be fine if the show were funnier or showed more heart. Even two of the funniest musicals of all time, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers, have characters we cared about even as we laughed at them. Here, while some of the jokes land, Garcia and O'Malley waste their time with too many dumb ones. A joke about the proper pronunciation of the Spanish name Jesus (Hay-soose rather than Gee-zuss) is questionable enough, but making it a running joke?

Director Christopher Ashley and his team create a few visually surprising and humorous bits. There's some fanciful Flying by Foy as weight-conscious Tammy fantasizes and ultimately gives in to her vision of a "Cheeseburger in Paradise." There's also a cleverly visualized scene in which the gang flies from Margaritaville to Cincinnati in some sort of bi-plane. The second act opener, "Volcano," is cleverly staged as well. But the numbers involving a running joke of Brick's acid flashbacks as a dancing soot-covered insurance salesmen are not helpful to the cause.

Walt Spangler's sets and Paul Tazewell's costumes are colorful and capture the look of a resort and the apparel of those within. Kelly Devine's choreography, though, on its own terms energetic enough, doesn't solve a unique problem posed by this subject. Unlike in the rest of real life, guests at Club Med-like resorts really do sing in unison and dance like nobody's watching. They just don't do it as well or with such precision as this ensemble does. So when we see these production numbers executed it feels inauthentic and takes us out of the story rather than into it. She may have needed something in the spirit of Footloose's "Let's Hear It for the Boy" or Hello, Dolly!'s "Dancing" that makes choreography out of a supposed non-dancer's clumsiness.

Ashley's cast is perfectly fine. Nolan is a good surrogate for Buffett, with a vocal quality that's similar to, but not as mellowly pleasing as Buffett's. Luff's an appealing and likable Rachel. Howard, Peterson, Webb and Sparks do what they can with the script they have been given. The ten-piece band led by Christopher Jahnke (who also added to the orchestrations by Buffett's one-time collaborator Michael Utley) nicely replicates the sound of Buffett's backup Coral Reefer Band. Another Buffett associate, Mac McAnally, is listed as music consultant as well.

There's a line in the second act where an African-American music executive says of Tully's songs of balancing work-life demands, "white folks eat that stuff up." Sure enough, many of Buffett's songs speak to what we call high-class problems—taking time away from demanding, well-paying jobs long enough to enjoy life. People who are more likely to have second homes than second jobs. Admittedly, there are many who would love nothing more than the luxury of wasting away in Margaritaville or the ability to leave work off early and have a few drinks while noting that "It's Five O'clock Somewhere."

Whether one is a slave to work for survival, though, or a slave to work that will provide a certain standard of living, Buffett's words accompanied by his catchy and pleasing melodies recognize the struggle to stay in touch with nature and our better nature. This show, on its final pre-Broadway engagement (following its premiere at La Jolla in San Diego, then New Orleans and Houston) has been revised along the way. Maybe before its last stop it will find more of its heart and throw some of the stale jokes overboard, or into that volcano. Or maybe the show, rather than being for Parrotheads only, will find a more receptive audience who don't have as much familiarity with Buffett's work or the same reasons for loving it as this one particular reviewer.

Escape to Margaritaville will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, through December 2, 2017. For tickets or further information, visit, call 800-775-2000, or visit a Broadway in Chicago ticket office.

Songs in alphabetical order:
"A Pirate Looks at Forty"
"Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On"
"Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes"
"Cheeseburger in Paradise"
"Coconut Telegraph"
"Come Monday"
"Grapefruit - Juicy Fruit"
"Havana Daydreaming"
"He Went to Paris"
"I Will Play for Gumbo"
"It's Five O'clock Somewhere"
"It's My Job"
"Last Mango in Paris"
"License to Chill"
"Love and Luck"
"My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don't Love Jesus"
"One Particular Harbor"
"Ragtop Day"
" Son of a Son of a Sailor"
"Three Chords"
"Tin Cup Chalice"
"We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About"
"Why Don't We Get Drunk"

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