Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 15, 2018
Escape to Margaritaville Book by Greg Garcia & Mike OMalley. Music and lyrics by Jimmy Buffett. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Orchestrations by Michael Utley. Dance music arrangements by Gary Adler. Music consultant Mac McAnally. Music coordinators Michael Keller and Michael Aarons. Music supervision, vocal & instrumental music arrangements, and additional orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke. Choreography by Kelly Devine. Scenic design by Walt Spangler. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Wig, hair, & makeup design by Leah J. Loukas. Flight effects by Flying By Foy. Associate director Amy Anders Corcoran. Associate choreographer Andrew Turteltaub. Cast: Paul Alexander Nolan, Alison Luff, Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen, Rema Webb, Don Sparks, Andre Ward, Ian Michael Stuart, Sara Andreas, Mike Millan, Justin Mortelliti, Matt Allen, Tessa Alves, Samantha Farrow, Steven Good, Angela Grovey, Albert Guerzon, Keely Hutton, Ryann Redmond, Jennifer Rias, Julius Anthony Rubio, Brett Thiele, Tiffany Adeline Cole, Marjorie Failoni, Justin Keats, Nick Sanchez.
But even if you answered "B" to all three, unless you are allergic to Mr. Buffett's always catchy, sometimes angsty story-telling songs that made his music a mainstay of the airwaves in the 1970s, you will find much to enjoy in the performances by the talented and ebullient cast, headed up by a charismatic Paul Alexander Nolan in the musical's central role of Tully, a carefree beach bum and singer-songwriter not unlike Jimmy Buffett himself.
Tully is a mainstay at the Caribbean island-based Margaritaville Hotel and Bar, a destination for budget minded snowbirds who pop down for a week of R and R. Tully plays and sings with the band (Mr. Nolan on guitar is quite a troubadour himself). But his favored pastime is canoodling with the tourist ladies, assured that he will never see them again after they head back home. He has mastered the art of charming and efficient farewells; even if he fails to remember their names, he has an answer at the ready, as when he blithely explains to Heather, "Jennifer's my pet name for you." For backup, just in case he's feeling any pressure to make promises he will never keep, he signals his buddy, the bartender Brick (Eric Petersen), to jump in and shoo everyone off to the shuttle van to the ferry. Together, Tully and Brick, whose motto is "You can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning," make for a perfect, carefree team. That is, until Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard) show up.
From that point onward, we are in very familiar "boy meets girl" romantic comedy territory (book by Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley). The two women are there for a getaway vacation prior to Tammy's upcoming marriage to Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart), back home in Cincinnati. Since we already know enough about Chadd to peg him as a total jerk (coach potato, watching hockey on the TV with the guys, and a sexist pig to boot), it takes approximately two seconds to figure out who will wind up with whom. Though, of course, it takes a couple of hours and few plot turns before Tammy dumps Chadd for Brick, and the career-oriented Rachel warms to Tully. Rachel, in particular, is happy to fool around while on vacation, but her main focus is on her scientific project involving using potatoes as an electrical power source. (Don't laugh; didn't you do the potato-powered light bulb experiment in middle school science class?)
Turning a set of old hit songs (plus a few new ones Mr. Buffett wrote for the show) into a full-blown musical with an actual narrative is no easy feat. But there have been enough successful jukebox musicals to guarantee that format is here to stay. Just think of the payback to investors from Jersey Boys, Mama Mia!, and Beautiful: The Carol King Musical.
Time will tell whether Escape to Margaritaville will have these kind of legs, but what Garcia and O'Malley have done here is to generally stick with the rom-com formula while finding ways to shape as much action as possible around the lyrics to Mr. Buffett's songs. Their approach has been to make generous use of verbal and visual puns. Tammy and Brick hit it off over their mutual love of puns, and the writers also use them to prepare us ahead of time for some of the numbers. Buffett's highest-charting and possibly his best-known song, "Margaritaville," has a setup that includes one of the characters, the eyepatch-wearing ex-airplane pilot J.D. (Don Sparks), searching over and over for his "lost shaker of salt." We also get Brick waking up with a tattoo of Tammy's face on his beer belly ("how it got here, I haven't a clue"). If you like this kind of silliness, there's plenty more to be found. There's even a volcano on the island, whose main purpose is to get us ready for the song "Volcano" and the lyric, "I don't know where I'm gonna go when the volcano blow." This one is winningly performed at the top of Act II by a nervous Jamal (Andre Ward), one of staff at the hotel, as bursts of steam spew all around him.
As you likely have already figured out, there is little point to look for any depth to Escape to Margaritaville. We're definitely swimming in warm, shallow waters all the way. Without losing sight of the old-fashioned musical comedy roots of the plot, however, some care has been taken in depicting the women as being confident and comfortable with themselves. Tammy, for instance, could easily be viewed as a clichéd overweight woman with low self-esteem, bullied by her worthless fiancé who expects her to go on a starvation diet prior to their wedding, as, indeed, Chadd does. Yet, thanks to Lisa Howard's assertive and assured performance, we get quite the opposite picture, a strong woman who knows what she wants (never mind asking how she got hooked up with Chadd in the first place). The show also makes it a point of waiting for love to take hold of Rachel until she has found success with her scientific work; it is the lady's man Tully who must bide his time. Finally, there is the third couple, J. D. and Marley (Rema Webb), the smart businesswoman who owns the hotel and bar. It's J. D. who leads the audience in a sing-along of "Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw)," but it's definitely Marley who will determine if and when the two of them will get together to answer that question.
There are some other nice touches that add to the evening's enjoyment: a cleverly staged snorkeling scene, the inclusion of a gay couple among the partygoers at the bar, a hallucinogenic flashback that turns into a Vegas dance routine (Kelly Devine is the choreographer), and a fantasy sequence set to the song "Cheeseburger in Paradise." In the end, of course, director Christopher Ashley and the entire company want nothing more than to have us belly up to the theater's bar for one of those "frozen concoctions," enjoy the tunes, and accept that it's all just a "License to Chill."