REVIEW: Escaping the Reverse Engineered “Escape to Margaritaville”
An active volcano forces the dull and surface deep characters of the feather-light and abundantly sunny “Escape to Margaritaville” to, well, escape from Margaritaville in act two. That departure signals a “point of no return” for this reverse-engineered juke box musical built from the catalogue of beach bum rocker Jimmy Buffett.
If you are keeping count, that’s the second volcano-dependent story line to appear in a new musical this season, following “SpongeBob SquarePants”, which also ends with a shower of beach balls. I’m not claiming theatrical plagiarism, but unlike that joyful adaptation of everyone’s favorite sea sponge cartoon, you can almost smell the smoke and hear the gears of “Margaritaville” turning in order to churn out what ends up being the forced fun equivalent of a cheesy resort vacation.
Though well-intentioned—it’s hard to hold antipathy toward a show in which “cheeseburgers are awesome” is gleefully announced from the stage—this new musical, directed with sleek spirit by Christopher Ashley (a Tony winner for “Come From Away”), comes up short and thin. This is hardly surprising, though, because a song that became a restaurant that became a resort that became a way of life can only be stretched so far to become a musical.
On that unnamed Caribbean Island, Tully (an always charming Paul Alexander Nolan, “Bright Star”) is the headlining singer at the Margaritaville Hotel and Bar, owned by saucy native Marley (Rema Webb), who makes a mean sponge cake, and frequented by the sea-tossed, eye-patched memoir writer J.D. (Don Sparks), who is always in search of his lost shaker of salt. You can see where this is going.
Breezy and cool, with his bartender buddy Brick (Eric Petersen) by his side, Tully never lets a romance go deeper than the surface or last longer than a vacationer’s stay. When Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard) arrive from snowy Cincinnati, Ohio for Tammy’s bachelorette weekend, sparks start to fly, and before too long, Tully and Rachel dive deep, as Brick and Tammy flirt.
While their conversations rarely pass the Bechdel–Wallace Test, Rachel hates Tammy’s oafish goon of a fiancé, Chadd, who is rude, loud, and “smells like nacho cheese”. For her part, Tammy wants Rachel—a serious environmental scientist working on a biomass fuel project—to let loose for once and have fun with a guy.
By week’s end (aka intermission), Tully has opened his heart and fallen in love, but vacation time is over, and Rachel sees the fling as just a fling. Then the volcano strikes, our islanders hitch J.D.’s sea plane to Cincinnati to crash a wedding party in which “Cheeseburger in Paradise” celebrates the end of Tammy’s oppressive bride diet, Rachel once again rebuffs Tully—bluntly stating that she prefers fixing problems instead of running away from them (cue the “you go girl!”)—and he’s suddenly discovered by a record label. I’ll stop here with the plot sharing, but, spoiler alert: it ends happy.
About halfway through act one, I got the creeping feeling that just about every word of the pithy dialogue was laying the seed for a future lyric to make sense. I feared, perhaps, that I was on the outside of an inside joke, but as the lyrical references kept dropping faster than coconuts falling from trees, the audience surrounding me remained mostly tame and mute.
Unlike the oeuvre of Swedish pop sensation ABBA, the lyrics and island milieu of Buffet’s top-shelf catalogue are very specific, which makes their interpolation that much harder. To the credit of book writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, who have cut their teeth writing for television sitcoms, nearly every lyric is set up so that it will make sense when the moment comes. But having worked so hard to achieve that, they’ve ended up writing a soulless and bland show where more fun is had on stage than in the audience.
We are given a “license to chill” in the opening number, but the whole show is a celebration of mindless inebriation (“It’s Five O’clock Somewhere”) and middling intellect, glorifying cheap, unrealistic, and very problematic talk of sex and relationships. The song “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and screw)?” is particularly tone deaf in 2018.
Anything can be done in a musical, and the audience will go along if rules of engagement are established and followed. Early in act one, Marley boasts of having “de best breakfast buffit you’ve ever had”. When corrected by Rachel that it’s pronounced “buf-fay”, Marley quickly retorts: “No, I tink you’re tinkin’ of the singer.” If the show acknowledges that it exists in a universe in which Jimmy Buffet and his music exist, then the fact that Tully’s songs can later make him a Grammy-winning recording star, an important plot point of the show, makes no sense.
In act two, a hallucinated tap dancing chorus line of dead sequin-clad insurance men and a quartet of dancing clouds show up apropos of nothing, and aren’t funny or clever, just odd. The supposedly dingy hotel looks anything but. An “overweight” Tammy looks like a regular person. The only smart person on stage appears to be Rachel, our scientist. Of course she’s a stick in the mud in search of wifi who travels with jars to collect soil samples for her mocked project to save the planet. Add to that some jokes about erectile dysfunction, masturbation, and (gasp!) men changing diapers. The cast is spectacularly cheery—as are most of the pre-existing, mellow tunes—but the story and book are irredeemably lazy and subpar.
There are only a handful of people of color on this Caribbean Island, and the only ones who speak are the help—Marley and her assistant, Jamal (Andre Ward)—and a fellow guest named Jesus (Hay-sus) who J.D. keeps calling Jesus (Jeez-us). That’s a joke, by the way. Marley’s patois is often wince-inducing, like this gem, when she takes the wheel of J.D.’s sea-plane: “This be amazing. Me be flying!!!”
Ted, the African American agent who discovers Tully (also played by Andre Ward), shines a light on the whiteness of the show: “Acoustic guitar... songs about the beach... hush puppy shoes... white people love that kinda shit.” And how. They’ve even written a musical.
The not-so-subtle cultural appropriation of the Jimmy Buffett empire is not something I’d ever really thought about. Despite the anti-materialism, anti-capitalism, chill out ideology he espouses, Buffet is a salesman—albums, concerts, books, merchandise, restaurants, hotels—who never stops hocking his “lifestyle” brand, which turns out to be an easy and lucrative swallow. Perhaps “Escape to Margaritaville”, an attraction right in Times Square—a dream for Buffet’s most devoted fans, the “Parrotheads”—will pay off.
At intermission, one bro from the coterie sitting behind me suggested loudly: “Yo, let’s go get a drink!” I counted three different bars on the festively decorated orchestra level of the Marquis Theatre, and they were pumping out those signature margaritas. The audience is there to have a good time, and I think they did, and maybe that’s all the matters. But in the end, after that shower of beach balls, I was more than ready to escape “Escape to Margaritaville”, which, appropriately enough, finds its home in a Broadway theatre located in a hotel.
Bottom Line: “Escape to Margaritaville” is a reverse-engineered juke box musical fashioning the catalogue of beach bum rocker Jimmy Buffett into an abundantly sunny but soulless celebration of mindless inebriation and middling intellect where more fun is had on stage than in the audience. Opt out of this branding venture, and follow the Parrotheads to a Jimmy Buffett concert instead.