Escape to Margaritaville Baits Broadway With Some Buffett-Style Indulgence
Above even his music, Jimmy Buffett's most valued and marketable product is bottled hedonism. It's a drink best served on the rocks with salt and should be consumed, if not in a body of water, in the vicinity of one where sun is plentiful and expectations are low. The people coming to Escape to Margaritaville, which opened at Broadway's Marquis Theatre on March 15, are likely to be at least passive subscribers to this laissez-faire life philosophy, and are certainly looking for a few shots of it before being sent back out onto the cold New York City streets.
With a musical portfolio that includes anthems of indulgence like "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," you'd think it would be easy work to concoct a story that espouses those same sentiments. And then you remember that stories have to end somewhere different than where they started. So do you subvert the Buffett doctrine within the Buffett musical? You can feel Escape to Margaritaville consider that option, but ultimately stumble backwards, pop a squat on a beach chair, and take a nap.
Director Christopher Ashley is almost one year removed from his Tony win for Come From Away, but both the content and structure of Margaritaville offers far fewer opportunities for moments of theatrical inspiration. TV comedy writers Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley are the minds behind Margaritaville's story of tropical star-crossed lovers: Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) is a singing and songwriting beach bum who entertains guests at a tequila-soaked resort called Margaritaville. Rachel (Alison Luff) is a driven scientist who spends a week on the lazy island with her best friend, Tammy (Lisa Howard) as a last hurrah before Tammy's wedding.
Margaritaville — designed by Walt Spangler like a boho island utopia with a straw-roofed bandstand centerpiece — is not exactly Rachel's element. The 24-hour house party is filled with body-rolling revelers (choreographer Kelly Devine defibrillating the show with her high-energy group numbers), all of whom fall somewhere on the scale between drunk and hungover. However, Rachel plans to use her time there to do some nondescript "science" work while also hoping for Tammy to find a beach dweller to come between her and her loser fiancé, Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart). That beacon of hope falls on Tully's dopey sidekick, Brick (Eric Petersen), who, unlike Chadd, appreciates Tammy's not-size-zero physique, laughs at her puns, and displays traits of basic human decency. So off Tully, Brick, Rachel, and Tammy go on their island adventures. Brick teaches Tammy that not all men are verbally abusive, and Tully teaches Rachel how to throw away life's cares and live in the now.
But does any learning go the other way? Brick, I suppose, learns a bit more self-compassion now that he sees himself through Tammy's starry eyes, and Tully learns to have deeper feelings for a woman (though he and Rachel spend most of their week in bed so the difference is subtle). But when the women return to their lives in Cincinnati, it's an erupting volcano on the island that sends the men chasing after them — a surprisingly insignificant plot point that does, nonetheless, offer an excuse for Andre Ward to belt out "Volcano" in the show's best number.
On the mainland, Tully and Rachel find themselves at an impasse: Rachel still wants to pursue her work developing super-powered potato batteries, and Tully wants to continue sipping from his "tin cup chalice." If she caves to his desires, we've got ourselves a woman throwing away a life of altruistic ambition for an indolent man. If he caves to hers, we're besmirching the honor of Jimmy Buffett. So what's a show for Parrotheads to do? This one avoids the issue entirely, making the circumstances of the plot sort out all of the conflicting emotions in lieu of human agency.
No amount of brightly colored outfits (an eye-catching collection of beachwear by Paul Tazewell) can disguise these structural defects — but then Nolan sings "Son of a Son of a Sailor" and a few sins are forgiven. He's appealing as our quasi Jimmy Buffett, delivering the too-cool-to-try aura in moderate doses, but book scenes quickly become frustrating waiting periods between songs where his powerful voice can shine.
As Rachel, Luff is squeezed into the "workaholic woman" box, but delivers her songs beautifully as well — "It's My Job" unfortunately being her only featured number. Petersen wins the award for Mister Congeniality, charming us as the nice-guy goofball who brings love and cheeseburgers into Tammy's life, but we should all eagerly await the day that the flawless Lisa Howard isn't relegated to the love-your-body power ballad as she also was in her last Broadway turn in It Shoulda Been You.
She has far more to offer, as do so many of these Broadway islanders — not the least of which being the fabulous Rema Webb, who stands at the sidelines as Marley, the resort's proprietor and jail bait for the lascivious drunkard J.D. (Don Sparks, who eventually gets to imbue his less-than-appealing character with heart in "He Went to Paris"). Every once in a while you get a glimmer of what each of them can do, but ultimately you can't help but feel they're all wasting away in Margaritaville.