Friday, March 23, 2018

184 (2017-2018): Review: ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE (seen March 22, 2018)

“White People Like that Kinda Sh*t”

Escape to Margaritaville, the new jukebox musical that strings two dozen Jimmy Buffet songs together like flowers on a lei, goes down sweetly but lacks even the hint of intoxication. Created in the vein of shows like Mamma Mia!, it searches for clues in the Buffet canon that could justify inclusion in a narrative, then plunks them in as if they belong there the way lime juice, orange liqueur, and tequila do in a margarita. The gooey result wouldn’t pass a mixology test.

Paul Alexander Nolan and company Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Buffet fans will surely enjoy the buffet of the laid-back singer’s enormously popular songbook, such as “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise”; they’d have to be zonked out on multiple margaritas, though, not to groan at book writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley’s banal book, clichéd characters, and hoary humor, like a running joke about someone named Jesus insisting his name is pronounced Haysoos. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the good jokes have escaped from Margaritaville. That’s probably why the biggest laugh is a self-deprecating crack from a black record producer (Andre Ward), who tells the show’s buff, Buffet-based hero that he can make him and his music successful because “White people like that kinda shit.”

That hero is Tully Mars (Paul Alexander Nolan, charismatic), a handsome, tousle-haired, totally ripped, singing guitarist who has found heaven at a rundown, ocean-side resort called the Margaritaville Hotel and Bar on a tiny Caribbean island. He’s a Casanova who, having escaped from the rat race to his sunburnt heaven, finds his greatest pleasure in seducing some new hotty from each new boatload of tourists; he barely bothers to learn their names before callously bidding them farewell after their brief vacation.

Because all such leading men need a caricaturish comic buddy, Tully gets one in the chubbily shlubby, none-too-bright, beachside bartender Brick (Eric Petersen, think an overweight but not as funny Jerry Lewis), also enjoying his carefree, bachelor’s life of sun, fun, and rum.
Andre Ward and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Additional local color is provided chiefly by the resort’s arm-in-a-sling, Island-accented factotum Jamal (Andre Ward), its similarly accented, sassy proprietress, Marley (Rema Webb), and J.D. (Don Clarke), a seedy, septuagenarian, potbellied, Viagra-popping beach bum. A former pilot with a yen for Marley, he kills his time writing his memoirs on cocktail napkins, and owns both a buried treasure chest and a plane that come to figure heavily in the increasingly ridiculous plot. J.D.’s constant search for a lost shaker of salt, by the way, will make sense to anyone familiar with the lyrics to “Margaritaville.”
Lisa Howard and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Meanwhile, the pleasingly plump Tammy (Lisa Howard, sweetly adorable), on the verge of marrying Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart), a clueless, unkempt, beer guzzling, hockey-fan bro, takes off from wintry Cincinnati for a bachelorette vacay in Margaritaville with her BFF, Rachel (Alison Luff, lovely), a beautiful environmental scientist. Rachel’s more concerned about her research projects than with enjoying herself, so Rachel, meet Tully; Tammy, meet Brick; Tully, meet record producer. And theatregoer, meet predictability.
Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
There are very few surprises in this high-energy, 26-performer show, directed by Come from Away’s Christopher Ashley—unless surprising means dancers dressed as clouds in huge tufts of white cotton, a tap-dancing chorus of dead insurance salespeople (don’t ask), or characters flying on wires for an underwater scene or table-hopping from low-calorie food to a pile of cheeseburgers.
Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen, and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Buffet’s well-known songs, many set to Kelly Devine’s well-executed but generic choreography (including, of all things, a sequined chorus line routine), barely provide enough stimulation to keep your brain functioning for the show’s overlong two-hours and 20 minutes.

Walt Spangler’s settings, colorfully lit by Howell Binkley, range from cheesily pretty island scenes, surrounded by a series of semicircular, blue wings that resemble camera shutters, to Tammy’s sitcom-like Cincinnati apartment, to a Cincinnati bar/restaurant for her wedding to Chadd. Paul Tazewell has created a wealth of bright costumes, although it’s a bit odd that Tully, Brick, Marley, and J.D. show up at Tammy’s affair in Caribbean-wear despite the snow storm visible through an upstage window.
Lisa Howard, Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan, Eric Petersen. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Escape to Margaritaville ends with a beach ball extravaganza as hundreds of balls drop into the audience to be bounced from person to person. In the process of pushing a ball away, I sent my eyeglasses flying, forcing me to whip out my IPhone flashlight and search under the nearby seats. This involved several theatregoers, including a glassy-eyed young blonde in front of me who, along with her half dozen girlfriends, had been downing margaritas throughout (they especially dug “Why Don’t We Get Drunk”).

Not only did we eventually find my glasses, we also found someone else’s. The woozy blonde thereupon insisted I thank God for having found my glasses. The show being over, I did so, but not necessarily for being able to see again.


Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway, NYC
Open run