Book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley; Music and Lyrics by Jimmy Buffett
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th Street
by Dan Dinero on 4.5.18
Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen, and the cast of Escape to Margaritaville. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: Without a margarita, you may well want to escape Escape to Margaritaville.
I’ll be blunt: I did not like Escape to Margaritaville. Not even in a “so bad it’s good” way. I know, I know—it’s a mindless jukebox musical, don’t take it so seriously. But the thing is, even entertainment that is “mindless” need not lack quality, or wit, or a passion for…well, for anything, in the way that Escape to Margaritaville does. This is a show where you can almost hear the creative team (who all know better) phoning it in, and where it is immediately apparent that what you are watching is a blatant cash grab for easy tourist dollars. When such a show takes up one of the few available Broadway theatres, those of us who love Broadway musicals get a bit grumpy.
Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) is a lounge singer at a run-down resort on some island in the Caribbean (one with a volcano, which here is like that Chekhovian gun on the mantle). His friend Brick (Eric Petersen) works the bar. Rachel (Alison Luff), a scientist (cool), and Tammy (Lisa Howard), an overweight fiancée (that’s her sole identity) travel to said resort from Ohio (I’m sure a strategic choice for the tourist crowd). There’s also Marley (Rema Webb), who runs the resort with the help of Jamal (Andre Ward), and J.D. (Don Sparks), who apparently just drinks there. If you don’t already know how this show will end, or who will wind up with whom (sorry Jamal, no sex for you), you clearly have never seen a musical comedy.
Yet to call Escape to Margaritaville a musical comedy is to imply that it’s funny. Unfortunately, this musical doesn’t even have that going for it. I love a bad pun, and while this show has plenty, they aren’t all that enjoyable. Perhaps it’s the book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, which is not only highly implausible (not in itself a deal-breaker with this genre) but also internally inconsistent and illogical. But clearly this doesn’t bother the creative team, whose sole goal was apparently to shoehorn in reasons for as many Jimmy Buffett lyrics as possible, even if it means having a character inexplicably, and repeatedly, lose his salt shaker. When the lyrical payoff for each random plot point finally comes, it’s likely you may not notice, or even care.
Not that everything in this show is bad. Lisa Howard continues to make me wonder 1- how it is that actors can make such bad material come off so well, and 2- why she keeps getting cast in third-rate projects. Andre Ward somehow manages to make the Act 2 opener “Volcano” into one of the best songs of the evening. And Alison Luff does a nice job with her “I want” song “It’s My Job,” even if the lyrics, about Rachel’s love of environmental science (in a Jimmy Buffett musical?), are yet another example of awkward writing.
Most of the design elements—set, lighting, and costumes—are serviceable, although I’m not sure this service deserves a tip. Certainly Paul Tazewell’s beach-friendly costumes provide ample opportunity for bare male torsos, if you care about such things. And hey, if you want to see dancers dressed as clouds complete with hats like whipped cream nipples, this is the show for you. Kelly Devine’s choreography is similarly passable, even it comes off largely as a cross between the dancing at a suburban wedding and that in a third-rate music video. It’s the kind of dancing you could pick up yourself if you watched it a few times (maybe that’s the point?), and at least it keeps the energy up.
Unfortunately, the combination of Brian Ronan’s sound design and Michael Utley’s orchestrations makes Jimmy Buffett’s music sound like…really loud Muzak. I know Parrotheads (Buffett’s fans) may will themselves into loving this show, but any true fan should be upset by the lazy treatment of his ouevre. All of the music’s character is lost, perhaps most egregiously when it comes to the title song. As sung at the end of Act 1, “Margaritaville” starts out with a suitably melancholic vibe, but after the salt shaker and sponge cake payoffs, it soon turns into a rousing act one finale, complete with conga line, because how else do people dance at a Caribbean resort?
Indeed, there are many relentlessly upbeat production numbers—the one about cheeseburgers, the one about getting drunk and *****ing (Marley, the owner of a debaucherous beach resort, is for some reason too “polite” to sing this word, so the audience gets to yell it out, because audience participation is fun!), and the one with the tap-dancing zombie insurance salesmen, to name a few. But these songs are so dance-by-number, and their stage tricks so predictable, they will have a difficult time rousing anyone who has seen even a high school production of 42nd Street.
And then there are the show’s politics. While there are half-hearted attempts at feminism (a female scientist) and inclusivity (more than a few people of color, plus a random gay couple in the ensemble, if you don’t blink), these are outweighed by a message that is both conflicted and more than a little bit cynical. Ultimately, this is a show that lazily checks the now requisite diversity boxes, yet is still ultimately for a straight white audience. Granted, that’s the case for much of Broadway, and I guess at least Escape to Margaritaville knows what it’s about: as a character says in one of the few truly funny lines of the evening: “Acoustic guitar, Hush Puppies shoes, and songs about the beach—white people LOVE that kind of shit.”
But hey, what do I know? The audience around me seemed to be having a blast, although this might speak more to the consumption of margaritas on sale in the lobby. And if you stick it out to the end, you may wind up with a free beach ball or two. I’m tempted to say this musical is best for those who’ve never been to a Broadway show, but then again I’d hate for this to be their introduction. No matter your demographic, there are better options out there, especially at these prices. Well, unless you’re a zombie insurance salesman in from Ohio. It’s always nice to see yourself on stage.
(Escape to Margaritaville plays at the Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th Street. Running time is 2 hours 25 minutes, with one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays at 2 and 8, Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $59 - $169, and are available at Ticketmaster.com or by calling 877-250-2929. For more information, visit escapetomargaritavillemusical.com.)
Escape to Margaritaville has a Book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, and Music and Lyrics by Jimmy Buffett. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreography by Kelly Devine. Scenic Design by Walt Spangler. Costume Design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting Design by Howell Binkley. Sound Design by Brian Ronan. Wigs, Hair, and Makeup Design by Leah J. Loukas. Flight Effects by Flying by Foy. Orchestrations by Michael Utley. Music Supervisor, Vocal and Incidental Arrangements, and Additional Orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke. Production Stage Manager is Kim Vernace.
The cast is Paul Alexander Nolan, Alison Luff, Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen, Rema Webb, Don Sparks, Andre Ward, Matt Allen, Tessa Alves, Sara Andreas, Tiffany Adeline Cole, Marjorie Failoni, Samantha Farrow, Steven Good, Angela Grovey, Albert Guerzon, Keely Hutton, Justin Keats, Mike Millan, Justin Mortelliti, Ryann Redmond, Jennifer Rias, Julius Anthony Rubio, Nick Sanchez, Ian Michael Stuart, and Brett Thiele.