With a super talented cast of great singers and energetic talented dancers, Escape to Margaritaville frolics onto Broadway with a sun-kissed smile and a happy easy going song. It’s basically the fun brother-in-law to the super successful Mamma Mia, with a dash of movie-style Rom-Com opposites-attract dynamic, a few shots of tequila and a whole lot of tart lime bar-mix blended to a frothy splendor. It’s not a high-end Patron margarita made with freshly squeezed limes served straight up in a martini glass, but more like a yummy frozen margarita made with cheap tequila and overly sugared bottled lime mix (and trust me on this) served in a “Tin Cup Chalice“, sure to give you a head splitting headache the morning after as you whistle a happy tune on your way to the airport. Maybe it’s the tequila, but more likely, it’s all that sugar in the mix that is to blame. But just like this show that asks the important questions, like “Why don’t we get drunk and…”, the title song and the sun drenched sentiment is there, stuck in your head for the remainder of the day.
It sure starts out fun, with the perfect strong and vibrant voice of Paul Alexander Nolan (Broadway’s Bright Star) as the cutie, Tully, strumming a guitar in cut off shorts and beckoning us with a song and a “License to Chill” into the Margaritaville Island bar, where the drink specials come daily, and the dancing to some good ol’ lively tunes never seems to end. Tully is the grand guide for all these fun-seeking vacationers into the land of pleasure and relaxation, the maestro of this island breeze, spreading holiday romance and good times without a care in the world. His motto is definitely not “Let’s keep in touch” (or the hilarious “Pets speak in Dutch“) but more along the lines of “romance is better enjoyed on the surface“. And that is exactly what this show is selling us from moment one, with salt on the rim and a slice of lime. Escape to Margaritaville with original and classic songs by Jimmy Buffett, doesn’t intend to go to deep in any way, shape, or form. This show is as light as a Corona, so sit back, put on some sun-block and get ready for some Beach Blanket shenanigans. Trust me, you’ll be humming and singing the songs for days to come, especially if a show like Mamma Mia is your kind of vacation. (PS: it’s not mine, nor are Buffett’s song list).
In stereotypical Rom-Com fashion, beautiful but up-tight Rachel, played by the golden voiced Alison Luff (Broadway’s revival of Les Misérables), a workaholic scientist who wants to save the world, arrives on the island, not for “My Best Friend’s Wedding” but for her BBF’s pre-wedding bachelorette beach holiday. At her side, wishing for her to lighten up, is her best buddy, Tammy, played with a wise-cracking sense of adventure by Lisa Howard (Encores’ Sunday in the Park with George) who’s about to get married to a good-for-nothing bozo named Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart) who has stayed behind in the cold, watching hockey, and hoping Tammy follows the diet he has prescribed for her. Rachel has rolled her small wheelie bag straight into the perfect Rom-Com set-up, a Cameron Diaz’s “The Holiday“, one that almost feels insulting in some way. The up-tight girl who is worried more about getting a soil sample from the volcano for her research, finding a Wi-Fi signal, and getting phone reception, can’t quite seem to chill out enough to notice the hot beach bum (yes, Nolan looks great in that part) standing right in from of her shirtless and curly haired, with a drink in his hand and a twinkle in his eye, just begging her to come seize the day with him. We all know where this is heading, and we also know from the get-go that the adorable bartender Brick, played charmingly by Eric Petersen (Broadway’s Dewey in School of Rock) is the man Tammy is really meant for and totally deserves, cause, a la “Bridget Jones’ Diary“, “he likes me just as I am“…. So now, all we have to do is sit back, enjoy the fairly memorable tunes, listen to the ridiculous puns and jokes, and watch the love fighting struggle forward, knowing the outcome and the end result all too well, but looking forward to the roller coaster ride.
But boy, does Rachel change her tune fast. So much faster than I was prepare for. All it takes is a strumming of “Three Chords” on an old guitar, and she’s kicking it back like an island pro, having the time of her life, drinking wine from a bottle, fooling around all day long, in and out of bed, and changing Tully’s outlook on romance and love without barely batting an eye. Somewhere else on the island, Tammy and Brick are also falling for each other fast, but struggling hard to be good and faithful (dammit), a dynamic that is a lot more surprising and engaging than first imagined. Howard’s Tammy is definitely the fun one to be around, singing loud and strong, grabbing hold of life and limb with gusto, and if I was going to be dragged along on a bachelorette party weekend at the beach, she is the one I’d want to have my “Cheeseburger in Paradise” with.
Also on deck for some more push-and-pull flirty games is the owner of this run-down resort, the sassy lady of the island, Marley, played exactly how this lady should be played by the enjoyable Rema Webb (Broadway’s Violet) sparing forever with the Hemingway-esque older beach bum and resident drunk, J. D., played like the old rascal he is by The Polynesian Serenaders band member, Don Sparks (Broadway’s Take Me Out). Nothing is out of place here, the songs are well done, the setting is as colorfully tropical as you can get for a Club Med kind of falling apart island resort, strongly designed by Walt Spangler (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting), bright colored costumes by Paul Tazewell (Hamilton), lighting designed by Howell Binkley (Prince of Broadway) and earth shaking sound design by Brian Ronan (War Paint), although only a few of these well performed songs (music supervisor/vocal & incidental music arranger/additional orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke) registered in my mind as recognizable beyond one or two of the classic variety, the energetic ensemble is strong and playful with enjoyable and energetic dance moves courtesy of star choreographer, Kelly Devine (Come From Away, Rock of Ages), and faster than you can say, “Sweet Home Alabama“, act one comes to a earth shaking end, leaving us joyfully happy, wondering (but not to hard) how this will all come to an end, and just how many drinks do we need to have at intermission to keep us smiling to the end.
There are odd bits and pieces here and there; dancing clouds, trippy businessmen, sweet gay tourists (I happily think I saw), and a strangely designed plane, left for us to try to sort out and make sense of. There are some clever bits of action and dialogue pulled out from the lyrics and tossed back at us with a big wide wink that give a chuckle, and the playful jokes are obvious but funny. The all-around handyman/dishwasher/masseuse, Jamal, played with a tropical twang and broad silly appeal by Andre Ward (Broadway’s Something Rotten!) saunters in and out, cracking a joke, and singing some enjoyable songs but most of his moments, and a few other scenes throughout, feel overly complicated, pointless and discardable. He is given a great song, “Volcano” to start the second act with, and as the others scamper around him afraid of what is coming, he holds our attention center stage with ease and charm. That’s basically how the whole second act starts to feel. The story lines start climbing on top of one another, and instead of getting untangled under the “Moonstruck” sky, they seem to become more and more complicated and convoluted the further you travel away from the island. One starts to wonder how the book writers and director, Christopher Ashley (Come From Away, Memphis) plan to tie this all up in the end. Instead of trusting in the construct of love they have steadily created with Rachel and her “10 Things I Hate About You” reasons for saying ‘no’, Escape to Margaritaville adds a twist that doesn’t fully resonate, something along the lines of ‘love won’t come to you unless you are a successful award-winning singer/songwriter’, and not just a beach bum on an island singing “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” drinking songs to tourists. Tully’s second act rise is as fast as Rachel’s first act fall into his loving arms, and although somewhat insulting in structure and meaning, the two leads, filled to the brim with awesome talent and incredible voices, sell us their story solidly and with the ease of a good bartender serving up a “Cocktail” like Tom Cruise. Without the four leads at the wheel of this thing, this trip with the free wheeling Buffett might have been a disaster, “Definitely, Maybe“.
The book by Greg Garcia (TV’s ‘Raising Hope‘) and Mike O’Malley (Showtime’s ‘Shameless‘) doesn’t complicate things too much in the beginning, following the wise instructions from Tully himself, “the deeper you go, the less interesting it gets“, but for act two, the tequila must have gotten to their heads. Two much sugar and not enough sass leads them down to a Mamma Mia 2 Here We Go Again style finale back on the island and a wedding to be had. I’m not sure it had to go down that often trod pathway to the alter, in the same way that so many of the elements feel borrowed and blue, much like the cute tap dance number, and the island ceremony in the final scene, but we knew somehow we would have to make it back to the beach for the finale. This show couldn’t end in the cold. I did start to feel a bit of the headache coming on early with this oh-so-typical device and the winding island road we had to take to get there. If you’re a Jimmy Buffett fan, you won’t mind though, but for the theatre goer who isn’t, and I’m definitely one of those, you might tire pretty quickly of this alcohol fueled vacation. But the margaritas aren’t horrible and the view, although not majestic or all that memorable, is superficially pretty enough. You do walk out though, sun-drenched and feeling fairly good, with the classic Jimmy Buffet song, “Margaritaville” lodged solidly in your head, so you know this has been a job well done, or should I say, a sunny island vacation done right. We might regret the amount of tequila-laden sugar we had to swallow to get back there, bemoaning the throbbing in our head the next day, and cry out “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus” anymore, but that beach party was pretty darn fun and pretty much worth the flight. Even if I don’t remember the details the day after.