Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast of ‘Escape to Margaritaville.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By Matthew Wexler
If there was one thing I learned in college, it was the difference between hangover tequila and the good stuff. The former was the kind of firewater that would have you tearing off your clothes and sleeping ‘til noon the next day. Such is the libation of Escape to Margaritaville, the Jimmy Buffett-inspired Broadway musical that opened tonight at the Marquis Theatre. But it’s also the kind of theatrical shot that makes you wonder why you drank it in the first place.
The producers know their audience, decking out the lobby with paper lanterns, signature cocktails, and as much swag as you’d find at one of Buffett’s Margaritaville resorts. It’s part of the questionably tasteful charm of the whole experience. Nobody is attending Escape to Margaritaville to witness a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, nor should they expect a more complex exploration of Caribbean themes that can be found a few blocks north at Once On This Island.
The performance I attended was packed with aging “Parrotheads” — the term affectionately bestowed upon dedicated Jimmy Buffett fans. With a top ticket price of $169, it’s a hefty price to pay for a relatively one-note evening under the tropical sun, though director Christopher Ashley and the creative team try their mightiest to make diamonds out of sand.
The pay-no-attention plot follows best friends Tammy (Lisa Howard) and Rachel (Alison Luff) as they head to Margaritaville for Tammy’s bachelorette getaway before her wedding to a dud who body shames her and gives her a television instead of an engagement ring. The women meet Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), a guitar-playing wanderer who works on the island (doing what we’re not really sure) along with his bartender bestie Brick (Eric Peterson). Locals include resort owner Marley (Rema Webb) and an eccentric ex-pat J.D. (Don Sparks).
A volcano shakes up the action at the end of Act I, but there’s not much else dramatic tension in the book by television writers Greg Garcia (“My Name is Earl,” “Raising Hope”) and Mike O’Malley (“Survivor’s Remorse”). Those familiar with the Buffet songbook will ooh and aah with how they’ve cleverly dropped lyrical hints into the script if only as a testament to their formulaic mastery. Choreographer Kelly Devine, who so brilliantly helped Ashley stage Come From Away, loses her footing here, lacking a unique vocabulary of movement beyond standard Broadway fare and missing the high-energy kitsch factor needed to shake up island time.
Scenic design by Walt Spangler, costume design by Paul Tazewell, and lighting design by Howell Binkley do due diligence for the show’s island setting as well as Act II’s plot return to Cincinnati. Unfortunately, Brian Ronan’s muffled sound design does little to support the actors’ vocals, which is a shame given the high caliber cast.
As the mop-haired Tully, Nolan delivers that laissez-faire vibe that you’d expect from someone who spends his days playing the guitar on the beach. Even when he recognizes his true feelings for Rachel, you have an inkling that he might want to lay down for a nap. Luff swoons on call, but her character’s independent woman sensibilities keep her from becoming a cliché.
The more exciting pair is Tammy and Brick, whose adolescent spring break romance is joyfully infectious. Each facing their own insecurities, they find commonality in their quirks and provide a needed energy jolt to Buffet’s mostly breezy score. Sparks as the island elder also offers charming comic relief in a show that often feels at low tide.
In spite of its shortcomings, Escape to Margaritaville has its frothy and fun moments, but not enough of the top shelf trappings to keep the theatrical hangover at bay.
Escape to Margaritaville
210 West 46th Street, NYC
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.