Jimmy Buffett believers, also known as “Parrotheads,” are going to have a whale of a good time at “Escape to Margaritaville” which opened at the Marquis Theatre on Thursday night. More surprising is that the hitherto uninitiated are going to be highly entertained as well. This is a cleverly crafted production, honestly done within its own convention and fun to watch.
The cultural bandwidth I inhabit had not expanded to include even the Grammy Hall of Fame hit that lends its title to the musical. But beyond the song “Margaritaville,” Buffett has produced more than 30 albums, continues to tour and is an icon of a genre he has pioneered. Some new songs have been created for the musical, but the allure for most is the inclusion of Buffett’s back-catalogue numbers to which many in the audience happily sing along. Backed up by crackerjack accompaniment, these Buffett standards, as well as the new songs, have been expertly retooled for the musical theater under the musical direction of Christopher Jahnke.
The reason this jukebox musical works as well as it does is largely due to the craftsmanship of book writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, who tackled their assignment with many sitcom credits in their arsenal. While a sitcom sensibility could run the risk of translating into a formulaic musical, the opposite proves true here. The team has dished up a plot wherein the interpolated songs actually seem to arise naturally to further the action, at least for the most part. For example, a missing salt shaker is introduced as a plot point early in the first act and then is ingeniously capitalized on later on in the lyrics of “Margaritaville.” What’s more, these writers know which boxes their story needs to check to appeal to a mainstream audience.
The basic setup involves a shabby Caribbean resort that welcomes tourists on weeklong vacations. These tourists include best girlfriends that hail from Cincinnati, one of whom, Tammy (played by Lisa Howard in an endearing performance) is being treated to a final “girls”’ trip. She comes into the week with a mandated diet from her fiancé, who prescribes carrot juice and sunflower seeds in the hopes of seeing her slim down for the wedding. Tammy soon meets Brick, a dim but lovably insecure island dude, (Eric Petersen in an amiable performance) who, you guessed it, might be prepared to love the lady the way she is right now. (Funny, relatable female protagonist — first box checked)
The other friend, Rachel, convincingly played and sensitively sung by Alison Luff, is a driven environmental scientist, meaning she loves her work, but apparently too much. She’s on the island to make sure her friend has fun, but also to collect soil from the volcano, which we’re told has not erupted in decades. Stay tuned. With Rachel, the writers adeptly tapped into the current cultural moment by modeling an empowered professional woman working in a male-dominated field.
As a minor digression, I found myself asking: what is it with plucky female scientists messing around with volcanoes on Broadway this season? Over at “SpongeBob SquarePants,” Sandy the Squirrel is a dead ringer for Margaritaville’s Rachel. Maybe those two should trade volcano sampling tips at the bar one night.
Back to our current mission: Brainy Rachel is also beautiful, of course. Soon after arriving at Margaritaville she encounters a devastatingly handsome, serial-womanizing singer-songwriter. Tully, the Buffett alter ego played by Paul Alexander Nolan, fronts the hotel band and more or less anchors our musical. Nolan is so effortless, authentic and winning in this part that he is well nigh irresistible. Happily he also brings significant musical chops along to the party. His character’s “live in the moment” mantra and the palpable chemistry between the two leads, eventually loosens up our hardworking heroine. (Wandering hero who only needs to meet the right woman to get his life on track — check)
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island, a fun-loving geezer (Don Sparks) intermittently pursues the almost age-appropriate, but still luscious hotel proprietress, Marley (Rema Webb in a musically compelling and wryly acted comic turn.) (Provide affirmation of continuing sexual desirability and satisfaction for the over-50 set – check, check.)
Margaritaville is made up of a seriously talented rainbow of performers whose differing sizes, ages and ethnicities are worthy of the UN. And Kelly Devine’s infectious choreography takes full advantage of the versatile ensemble, particularly in an outsized tap number featuring zombie hallucination. The tap number is so much fun that we forget that our heroes are meant to be occupied escaping impending doom. (Yes, that volcano is now erupting.)
Fittingly, the audience at the preview I attended looked different from standard Broadway attendees too. Heartland down-home types in cowboy boots, grandparents with young ones, Spanish speakers overheard debating their favorite song, astonishing tattoo art competing with colorful dreadlocks as people discussed their next tailgate party while sitting on the Adirondack chairs in the lobby.
“Mamma Mia!” an earlier entry into the successful jukebox musical sweepstakes, is the show “Escape to Margaritaville” most closely resembles. In “Mamma Mia!” I found the story contrivances to be forced and obvious. In contrast, “Margaritaville’s” seeming freshness and lack of cynicism, despite the checklist above, is remarkable. The second act does push the improbability meter into overdrive however, when the need to evacuate the island sends the main people of Margaritaville to the exact bar in Ohio where their lost loves just happen to be. Perhaps the tequila and beer available at our seats can help us suspend our disbelief. In fact, the indiscriminate consumption of a never-ending supply of booze is an essential ingredient in the good life, according to Buffett.
Director Christopher Ashley’s amusing and inventive staging keeps the bacchanal moving along at a brisk pace, which is probably a good thing. We wouldn’t want to linger too long, or think too much in paradise. And it does seems like paradise thanks to Paul Tazewell’s many hued costumes, which also trick us into believing that there are many more in the cast than is actually the case, and capture the Island’s color without ever becoming cheesy. Walt Spangler’s set, which believably takes us from the seaside to snowy Ohio and does so ably, is abetted by Howell Binkley’s saturated and evocative lighting.
Blend 20-plus Jimmy Buffett songs, add savvy and imaginative play making, and tip in a smattering of buoyant bonhomie. Then shake and stage. Yield – one fine time at “Escape To Margaritaville.”
“Escape to Margaritaville” opened at the Marquis Theatre on Thurs., March 15, 2018.
Producers: Frank Marshall, Rich Entertainment Group, Anita Waxman, Grove Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Jeremiah J. Harris & Darren P. DeVerna, Linda G. Scott, John H. Tyson, The Shubert Organization, Latitude Link, John Morgan, Roy Furman, Jeffrey A. Sine, AC Orange Entertainment LTD, Arlene Scanlan & Witzend Productions, Terry Allen Kramer, Universal Music Group & Scott Landis, Kevin J. Kinsella, Independent Presenters Network & Al Nocciolino, SeaHenry Productions & Skolnick-Dagen, Jam Theatricals and La Jolla Playhouse.
Creative: Book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley; Music by Jimmy Buffett; Lyrics by Jimmy Buffett; Music orchestrated by Michael Utley; 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.
Cast: Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan, Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen, Don Sparks, Andre Ward, Rema Webb, Matt Allen, Tessa Alves, Sara Andreas, Samantha Farrow, Steven Good, Angela Grovey, Albert Guerzon, Keely Hutton, Mike Millan, Justin Mortelli, Ryann Redmond, Jennifer Rias, Julius Anthony Rubio, Ian Michael Stuart, Brett Thiele.