Do you have to be a fan of Jimmy Buffett to love the jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville? No, but it certainly helps. Make mine something lividly colored and very cold, please barman. And keep them coming. It may be the only way to get through this.
Those gathering at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre for a slice of tropical escape are also waiting for Buffett’s most famous songs—like ‘Margaritaville’ itself—and for its refrains, especially when it comes to finding a certain lost shaker of salt, and whether a woman is to blame for this mysterious absence.
If you’re not a Jimmy Buffet fan, well, you won’t only know why this is so important, you will also not know you need to repeat “Salt” en masse at the right moment. There’s a tightly observed Buffett etiquette for aficionados, as devotional as the choruses of "Broooce" you hear at Springsteen on Broadway.
Escape to Margaritaville is a celebration of all things Buffett, a laid-back celebration of ‘island life,’ which here seems to mean: letting life happen, of not living to work but working to live, and drinking to hangover oblivion.
The musical is an extension of the 'Margaritaville' brand Buffett has parlayed into hotels, resorts, casinos and drinks (yes, they’re on sale at the theater).
For something that promotes such a lackadaisical vibe, it’s impressively calculated and ruthlessly marketed. "More than a musical, it's a way of life," is the show's shameless tagline. Buffett's estimated net worth is $550 million. He didn’t make that by drinking himself silly on a beach.
Buffett wrote the music and lyrics (obviously), the book is by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, and an appositely light book it is.
In terms of story, the musical needs as much as Buffett's songs demand of the brain, which isn’t much.
The brightly shirted “Parrotheads” are there for the standards, and the greatest hits of Buffett are served up (perfectly complemented by Walt Spangler’s impressively tacky resort design), among them “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus,” “Fins,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” “Grapefruit—Juicy Fruit,” “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” and “Why Don’t We Get Drunk.”
Be assured: If you loved these songs back when, you will love them again here.
On the island you will find the easy-going hunk Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), who strolls around with his shirt open and sometimes with no shirt at all, revealing the kind of body not achieved by just strolling around an island helping stressed out mainland tourists have a good time. Or by drinking that much.
We never see the Equinox and intensive Pilates schedule on the island, but Tully’s rock-hard abs are evidence that both must be there somewhere.
One boatload of tourists leaves the island and one comes back on, and Tully is a heartbreaker who never remembers the women’s names that he screws. But that’s OK, because he’s a good guy just selling short term-sex. He knows his place, this stud with a guitar, and his conquests do too. We are encouraged to laugh as he blanks on the personal details of his most recent, who wants something to continue afterwards. Gah. That is not island life.
Next, on to the island come Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard), two fully-loaded female character stereotypes who will benefit from this sunny idyll for different reasons.
Rachel, a career go-getter awaiting venture capital to develop an alternative energy source from a potato, is given miserable, serious songs to sing about just wanting to have a job and be fulfilled. The performance I saw Luff got not one round of applause for these, although admittedly they are situated so oddly in the action they feel like fillers.
Tammy wants to get married to her sexist schlub of a fiancé. This is her getaway break pre- the big day. She wants sex. She’s horny. She mustn’t have sex. She’s good, you see.
The fiancé wants Tammy to lose weight before their wedding, so we know he’s a bastard and she’s better off without him, and so much better suited to the incredibly stupid and incredibly decent and loyal Brick (Eric Peterson), who wants Tammy to be comfortable in her body (which isn't that fat in the first place).
He won’t disrespect her by having sex with her. But oh how he wants to. Anyway, Tammy’s on a diet. You got that? Good. Howard and Peterson do their darndest, and do it and sing and dance it well, to raise their characters out of shockingly one-dimensional streets. If you feel like cheering on a woman of a perfectly normal weight asserting her right to eat fast food, then 'Cheeseburger In Paradise,' featuring both trapeze and multiple cheeseburgers, will never sound sweeter than it does here.
The Oberon, Titania, and Puck in this summery revel—thankfully giving the stage some mischief and life—are Don Sparks, Rema Webb and Andre Ward, playing habitués of the island who have seen it all. Sparks' J.D. is old, crotchety, horny; Webb's Marley is the island’s head of guest services and has the best voice on stage; and Ward as Jamal casts a welcome wry eye over the prosaic confusion.
What the musical wants for its characters is a bizarre mash-up. Rachel has a career she’s interested in way too much to be focused on sex and love, which is initially presented as a huge character failing. We know Tully will supply some kind of romantic cure for this.
The risible way Escape to Margaritaville writes its lead women is partially offset by the songs and dancing of the company (including a noticeable gay couple, which is to be commended), and the musical’s collective energy is ably marshaled by both the chorus and choreographer Kelly Devine and director Christopher Ashley, who know—from their experience of working on Come From Away—how to pilot a colorful and busy musical stage.
They must have missed the complexities and nuance of the latter faced with this. If you find the idea of a running gag of a Latin American character called Jesus, being misnamed by J.D. “Gee-zus” rather than the phonetically correct “Hey-zeus” multiple times, roll on up, you’re gonna be in clover.
Not just because of the natural disaster that bookends the two acts (clue: the Buffet hit ‘Volcano’), Escape to Margaritaville feels a lot like the far superior SpongeBob Squarepants. But the latter’s anarchy and colorful zaniness has a freshness, Escape to Margaritaville feels like something too familiar taking an audience too much for granted.
As hard as the talented Nolan and Luff try, Tully and Rachel don’t feel right together. You don't root for them to get it together, be together, or get back together. They have zero chemistry and an awkward fit, no matter how much sun has beaten down and cocktails consumed.
Any would-be musical stars out there, struggling for years to get a record contract, should approach their visit to Escape to Margaritaville and Tully’s narrative journey with particular caution, and not be around any sharp objects afterwards.
The musical weirdly suggests that the endgame of all this sun-and-sex should be a cozy life in the suburbs, with the kinds of soul-destroying jobs island life mitigates. How does this day-glo epic of love and silliness and sunny idealism end? How do you think? Mamma Mia! fans know; hell, even if you haven’t seen Mamma Mia! you know.
It's an ending that makes no sense beyond a thudding dramatic inevitability. But perhaps deep readings are futile, and deeper analysis even more so. For Buffett's fans, and anyone else wanting sheer escape, this show is meant to be simply enjoyed. It's a "way of life," after all, and one that has proved very lucrative for Jimmy Buffett.
Escape to Margaritaville is at the Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th Street, New York City. Book tickets through Nov. 18 here.