'Escape to Margaritaville’: Searchin’ for Shaker, Salt, Etc.

NEW YORK — If ever there were a time to be drunk in the theater, this is it.

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'Escape to Margaritaville’: Searchin’ for Shaker, Salt, Etc.
, New York Times

NEW YORK — If ever there were a time to be drunk in the theater, this is it.

And the good news is that “Escape to Margaritaville,” the Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical that opened Thursday, makes getting sloshed on Broadway easier than ever. The lobby at the Marquis Theater has been kitted out as an island-style thatched-hut alcohol fueling station, complete with margaritas for $12 (on the rocks) or $16 (frozen), as well as bottle openers, Koozies and other drink-oriented paraphernalia.

The bad news is that you still have to see the show.

Or at least that was bad news for me, stone cold sober and with enough functioning brain cells to recall the past glory of musicals. If my twentysomething nephew liked “Escape to Margaritaville” better than I did, perhaps that’s because he had two drinks and no historical horror.

But if you’re not drunk or a Parrothead, as Buffett’s fans are called, you’re in trouble. Buffett’s denatured country-calypso ditties and horndog smarm seem awfully lowbrow, even in a Broadway environment debased for decades by singing cats and candlesticks. It’s quite a comedown in the sing-to-me-of-romance department from “Shall We Dance?” to “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw).”

That charmer, along with Buffett hits like “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and “License to Chill,” form the show’s spine and its ethos, in which rhymes are approximate and sophistication is suspect. Dopey fun is one thing, but “Escape to Margaritaville,” a paean to the pleasures of zipless debauchery, is pitched so low it will temporarily extinguish your IQ.

That may be its aim. The story, concocted from clichés that were already droopy when they appeared in almost every other jukebox musical, does not require you to put your thinking cap on. Mostly it asks that you notice the winking way it sets up situations that will later make Buffett’s lyrics seem as if they were custom fitted to the yarn rather than the other way around.

So if the title song (“Margaritaville,” a hit in 1977) refers to sponge cake, lost saltshakers and a brand-new tattoo, you can be sure that those items will force their way into the plot, the more bizarrely the better.

For the record, that plot goes like this: Rachel (Alison Luff) is an uptight environmental scientist; her BFF Tammy (Lisa Howard) is engaged to a jerk. Together, they take a one-week vacation to a rundown, Yelp-disapproved Caribbean hotel called Margaritaville. There, they meet Tully Mars (Paul Alexander Nolan), the laid-back, guitar-strumming on-site entertainer, and Brick (Eric Petersen), the dim but sweet bartender. Do you see where this is going?

I suppose you could call “Escape to Margaritaville” a coherent aesthetic experience, in that laziness is not just its method but its message. “Work is a dirty word around here,” Tully tells Tammy. “If you say it again we’ll have to wash your mouth out with tequila.”

“Work work work work work work,” she eagerly responds.

Tully, you see, is more than just a beach bum; he’s a philosopher in flip-flops. His profound challenge to Rachel is to decide whether she can let down her scientific hair long enough to crawl into a cabana for five days of casual sex with him. (She can.) His challenge to the audience isn’t much nobler: Why be an anxious hamster when you can go fishin’? Why scramble for The Man when you can sizzle and guzzle and fire up a fat spliff?

That theme could make for an amusing scene or two, but Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, the authors of the musical’s book, have two hours and 20 minutes to fill. They are clever enough with the punch lines, but twists involving a volcano eruption, a buried treasure and a tap-dancing chorus of zombie insurance agents smell of general despair. Worse, because even vapid jukebox musicals apparently require a moral these days, this one forces Tully to give up his toxic bachelor ways in favor of his singing career, which instantly takes off. And Rachel must realize that being ambitious about her work doesn’t mean she can’t have a man, especially one who has now become a star.

Did I mention that her work has something to do with potato power?

The story, too, seems to be powered by a tuber. How else to explain why a plot that spends most of its time selling the anti-establishment, no-strings lifestyle concludes like any old-fashioned musical with an island wedding and everyone ecstatically paired? Even the hotel’s tart proprietor (Rema Webb) and resident dirty old man (Don Sparks) are required to hook up. And though “Escape to Margaritaville” means to be feminist — Rachel name-drops Sheryl Sandberg as a hero — it’s a skimpy feminism at best. It utterly fails the Bechdel Test, no doubt thanks to a hangover.

As a matter of corporate promotion, though, the musical is totally on point. Tully is the perfect ambassador for the Margaritaville brand, which is built on the idea that you can rent hedonism by the week at a namesake resort or bring it home nightly in a can of LandShark Lager without working a day in your life.

Like all such branding, it’s a con; no one but pirates can sustain that lifestyle. And no one with any ambition wants to. Buffett, Margaritaville’s prototype and mastermind, has a wife and family and 5,000 employees; he works nonstop.

That makes “Escape to Margaritaville” even more cynical than the usual jukebox musical, which merely promotes a catalog of songs, not an alcohol-based empire. Director Christopher Ashley’s lumpy, garish production can’t disguise that agenda; nothing could. If the show nevertheless feels basically genial, it’s a tribute to the cast, which is scarily comfortable selling this hooey. Is there nothing Broadway performers can’t do? Or won’t do?

Certainly the score is beautifully sung. Nolan makes a better Jimmy Buffett type than Buffett ever did, and Howard is, as always, a delightful powerhouse.

It’s the songs themselves that are problematic. They may work well enough on the radio or in concert but, conscripted for theatrical service, grow quickly monotonous. Reverse engineered from a marketing concept, they seem catchy yet catch nothing; like the show itself, they’re all hooks, no fish.


“Escape to Margaritaville”

Credits: Book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley; music and lyrics by Jimmy Buffett; directed by Christopher Ashley; choreographed by Kelly Devine; music supervision, vocal and incidental music arrangements and additional orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke; sets by Walt Spangler; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Brian Ronan; wigs, hair and makeup by Leah J. Loukas; flight effects by Flying by Foy; orchestrations by Michael Utley; dance music arrangements by Gary Adler; music consultant, Mac McAnally; music coordinators, Michael Keller and Michael Aarons; production stage manager, Kim Vernace; production manager, Juniper Street Productions; general manager, Foresight Theatrical, Allan Williams and Lane Marsh. Presented by Frank Marshall, Rich Entertainment Group, Anita Waxman, Grove Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Jeremiah J. Harris and Darren P. Deverna, Linda G. Scott, John H. Tyson, the Shubert Organization, Latitude Link, John Morgan, Roy Furman, Jeffrey A. Sine, AC Orange Entertainment, Arlene Scanlan and Witzend Productions, Terry Allen Kramer, Universal Music Group and Scott Landis, Kevin J. Kinsella, Independent Presenters Network and Al Nocciolino, Seahenry Productions and Skolnick-Dagen, Jam Theatricals and La Jolla Playhouse.

Cast: Paul Alexander Nolan (Tully), Alison Luff (Rachel), Lisa Howard (Tammy), Eric Petersen (Brick), Rema Webb (Marley), Don Sparks (J.D.), Andre Ward (Jamal/Ted), Ian Michael Stuart (Chadd/ensemble), Sara Andreas (female tourist/ensemble), Mike Millan (Goon No. 1/Jesús/ensemble), Justin Mortelliti (Goon No. 2/Cloud/ensemble), Albert Guerzon (cloud/ensemble), Julius Anthony Rubio (cloud/ensemble) and Brett Thiele (cloud/ensemble).

Tickets: At the Marquis Theater, Manhattan; 877-250-2929, escapetomargaritavillemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

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