You know what you’re ordering with a musical comedy based on the music of Jimmy Buffett, an artist whose beach bum persona and preference for Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops contribute as much to his success as his formidable songwriting skills. “Escape to Margaritaville,” now in Chicago as the last stop on a pre-Broadway mini-tour, successfully pulls off the laid-back attitude while delivering a paint-by-numbers, frequently goofy romantic comedy replete with many of Buffett’s most popular tunes. This show is superficial but enjoyable, a happy-go-lucky entertainment that, much like its namesake beverage, goes down easy, tastes good, and leaves you with a pleasant feeling and a sudden urge to plan a vacation.
Book writers from the TV world, Greg Garcia (“My Name Is Earl”) and Mike O’Malley (“Shameless”), shape their formulaic fictional tale around singer-songwriter Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan). He entertains at a run-down but fun-loving resort (named “Margaritaville” of course) on a Caribbean island, enjoying endless opportunities for affairs as the tourists arrive, live a little, and depart. Enter vacationer Rachel (Alison Luff), much Tully’s opposite as an ambitious environmental scientist with dreams of saving the planet with potatoes. It turns out he’s pretty smart, she’s pretty funny, soon they’re in bed, and suddenly Tully’s in love.
Meanwhile, Rachel’s friend Tammy (Lisa Howard), engaged to her boorish high school sweetheart who insists she diet aggressively to fit a smaller size wedding dress, flirts with the resort’s airheaded but likeable bartender Brick (Eric Petersen).
Director Christopher Ashley (“Come From Away”) mixes spurts of over-the-top wackiness and showmanship with sedated moments of genuine feeling, and it’s his knowing when to restrain and when to let loose that makes “Escape to Margaritaville” ultimately work.
Don’t misunderstand: this is a goofy show. Sometimes, the characters talk to the audience as if we were vacationers, even encouraging us to sing along to “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” (this is a show, by the way, where audience members often sing along in a whisper). And when Brick sings about drug flashbacks, figures don’t just peek out from behind the tropical shrubs, they actually emerge as the folkloric insurance salesmen buried by the last volcano eruption. Yes… they’re zombies, in ash-covered business suits, dancing. Have a good time, folks, and don’t forget to notice the offbeat details of Kelly Devine’s choreography.
But then there are quiet moments, such as after Rachel departs at the end of the first act, ready to get back to her busy life after her fun fling. Tully begins the title song about wasting away in Margaritaville, and it comes off, at least until others join in, as an honest and even moving expression of moderate regret.
The show never, ever gets heavy, and never even seems to exert itself on developing themes or conflicts very far. But slightness can betray plenty of underlying stagecraft. There are times when, as Buffett does, the show takes on the tacky. But it manages to do so with the right level of tastefulness.