Broadway Review: Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Escape to Margaritaville’

Laid-back Jimmy Buffett musical makes a good-natured case for feeling his island music and living his beach-bum lifestyle.

Escape to Margaritaville
Matthew Murphy

Parrotheads, be warned that there aren’t enough parrots in this show. (Can somebody do something about that?)  Otherwise, the hedonistic spirit of Buffett’s feel-good “gulf and western” music is on flamboyant display in this witless but colorful songbook musical custom-tailored for the fans. 

Theatergoers are encouraged to get in the party mood by slugging back a few margaritas in the gaudily decorated lobby. Once inside, catch the island vibe, a sybaritic state of mind where the sun is always shining, the water is always warm, and everyone is having fun.  Have another margarita.

Walt Spangler’s color-saturated designs set the scene for the never-neverland called Margaritaville with grass and bamboo tiki huts, cardboard ocean waves, beachballs, surf boards, beach towels, and thick curtains of flower-filled vegetation. And let’s not forget the volcano — every Caribbean island needs its volcano — on the back wall. Designer Howell Binkley lights it all up with the brightest gels on his color wheel.

TV writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, who collaborated on the by-the-numbers book, break no fresh ground with their corny story about a charming island lothario who breaks down the romantic resistance of a tourist from Ohio. (Yawn) But the placement of the (mostly familiar) Buffett songs are smartly matched with the developments of the so-called plot.

“License to Chill” is the right introduction to Margaritaville and the folks who call this island resort home. Tully, the quintessential beach bum played by Paul Alexander Nolan (the bright star of “Bright Star” and still shining here), seems happy enough with his going-nowhere career playing in the Margaritaville Hotel house band. This onstage band, ensconced in its own little tiki hut, does a terrific job playing the role of Buffett’s own Coral Reefer Band.

A feisty woman named Marley (Rema Webb, who lights up the stage whenever she’s on) owns the picturesquely seedy Margaritaville Hotel & Bar, where all the local losers hang out. Brick, the sleepy-eyed bartender, is a cute bear of a guy, as played by Eric Petersen. J.D., entertainingly overplayed by Don Sparks, is the house character, an old coot who drinks on endless credit and claims to be writing the memoirs of a fabulous life.

There are lots of other buff, oiled bodies on stage, but for the most part, they’re just part of the scenery, on constant call to hoof it to Kelly Devine’s energetic if unimaginative choreography. They look cute, though, in Paul Tazewell’s brightly patterned costumes.

“Fins” is a funny song to welcome best friends Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard) who are down from Cincinnati, warning them about the landsharks they should expect to meet during their week-long vacation.  (“Can’t you feel ’em circlin’ honey? / Can’t you feel ’em swimmin’ around?”)

“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” makes the case for why up-tight Rachel should stop worrying about work and fun-loving Tammy should stop thinking about the fiancé she left back home and just get down to the principal forms of entertainment in Margaritaville – namely, drinking and screwing. (See also: “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?”)

At the same time, “It’s My Job” is a colossally boring number in which Rachel explains her colossally boring job.  And “Three Chords” is a snoozer of a romantic number for Tully’s seduction of Rachel.

“We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About” is a much more amusing, lightly romantic number between Brick and Tammy.  Petersen and Howard don’t smother the couple in cuteness, but they adroitly manage to make romance and humor go hand in hand.

As if all the drunk-and-disorderly numbers weren’t enough to give us a clear picture of life in Margaritaville, hangover songs like “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus” hammer home the message. And despite a cornball plot involving (Spongebob Squarepants alert) an angry volcano, most of the songs revolve around drinking.

However well packaged, the show just isn’t a good fit for New York, where it arrived by way of San Diego, New Orleans, and those tropical resort towns, Chicago and Houston. There’s no telling where it will go from here; but under the direction of Christopher Ashley, who directed the original production at La Jolla, the production is ship-shape to travel to the north, west, and south of us – anywhere but here.

Broadway Review: Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Escape to Margaritaville’

Marquis Theater; 1626 seats; $169 top. Opened March 15, 2018. Reviewed March 14. Running time:  <strong>TWO HOURS, 10 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A presentation by Frank Marshall, Rich Entertainment Group, Anita Waxman, Grove Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Jeremiah J. Harris & 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 & Witzend Productions, Terry Allen Kramer, Universal Music Group & Scott Landis, Kevin J. Kinsella, Independent Presenters Network & Al Nocciolino, Seahenry Productions & Skolnick-Dagen, Jam Theatricals, and La Jolla Playhouse, of the La Jolla Playhouse production of a musical in two acts with book by Greg Garcia & Mike O’Malley and music & lyrics by Jimmy Buffett.
  • Crew: Directed by Christopher Ashley.  Choreographed by Kelly Devine. Orchestrations by Michael Utley; music supervision, vocal and incidental music arrangements & additional orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke. Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Brian Ronan; wigs, hair & makeup, Leah J. Loukas; flight effects, Flying by Foy.
  • Cast: Paul Alexander Nolan, Alison Luff, Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen, Rema Webb, Don Sparks, Andre Ward, et al.