By Stanford Friedman
It has been a busy season for Broadway cartographers, what with all the new and exotic landmasses popping up along the Great White Way. First the Jewel of the Antilles arose at Once on this Island, then SpongeBob SquarePants took us to Bikini Bottom, and now, like a lost flip flop floating up from a low tide, Escape to Margaritaville surfaces, revealing a volcanic Caribbean isle where local inhabitants and vacationing Midwesterners sing only the words of pop songsmith Jimmy Buffett while occasionally hooking up and/or breaking out in dance. There are also extended side trips to Cincinnati. Pro tip: a pre-show $16 frozen margarita from the lobby bar will provide just enough brain freeze to keep you from thinking too hard about any of it, while still allowing you to enjoy the fine vocal work of its leads.
However, if by chance you do think hard about it, you might stumble upon a strange irony. Though Buffett has made a career out of embracing a take-it-easy lifestyle, his musical is nothing if not a lesson in the importance of possessing a strong work ethic. Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) is a songwriter spending his days in the titular town using his skills and his abs to score on a weekly basis with the guests of the hotel/bar where he works. But, by show’s end, he learns that by applying himself to his craft, he can become a star. Rachel (Alison Luff) is an environmental scientist whose trip to the island is a combination research trip and gal getaway with her soon to be married bestie, Tammy (Lisa Howard). Dedication to her work lands Rachel a career as well as a husband of her own. Brick (Eric Petersen) is a bartender who sees business executives in his acid flashbacks. He settles down and ultimately finds happiness as a mailman.
Unfortunately, book writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley fail to practice what they preach. Tasked with building a show around a pre-existing song set, scenes are arranged sloppily and outcomes are predictable from the get go. This will probably be irrelevant for the “Parrothead” fans of Buffet, a fact made plain by the Playbill where the musical numbers are listed alphabetically rather than in the order they appear. For those unfamiliar with the Buffet songbook, be prepared for lyrics that range from wise (“We are the people our parents warned us about.”) to the terribly rhymed (“The warm summer breezes/the French wine and cheeses”). Director Christopher Ashley speeds things along to a rushed ending while Kelly Devine’s choreography is lively if not especially inspired, with the exception of a couple breakout moments when her dancers literally take flight.
Less than two years ago, Ms. Luff was playing Fantine in Les Misérables, so there have definitely been some changes in latitudes/changes in attitudes in adapting to her role as Rachel. With a clear, strong voice and charming stage presence she shines brightly. Mr. Nolan is also a pleasing presence and even manages to find some true emotion in the title song when he croons that “some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s my own damn fault.” Mr. Petersen, meanwhile, brings not only strong vocal chops to his supporting role, but some fine physical comedy as well. “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” a rollicking number he shares with Ms. Howard, is a highlight. If only all the cheese had stopped there.
Escape to Margaritaville – Book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley; Music and lyrics by Jimmy Buffett; Directed by Christopher Ashley.
WITH: Alison Luff (Rachel), Paul Alexander Nolan (Tully), Lisa Howard (Tammy), Eric Petersen (Brick), Don Sparks (J.D.), Andre Ward (Jamal/Ted), Rema Webb (Marley), Matt Allen, Tessa Alves, Sara Andreas, Samantha Farrow, Steven Good, Angela Grovey, Albert Guerzon, Keely Hutton, Mike Millan, Julius Anthony Rubio, Ian Michael Stuart, Brett Thiele, Justin Mortelliti, Ryann Redmond and Jennifer Rias.
Music orchestrated by Michael Utley; Choreographed by Kelly Devine; Scenic Design by Walt Spangler; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Sound Design by Brian Ronan. Music Supervision by Christopher Jahnke. Kim Vernace, Production Stage Manager. Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th St., 877-250-2929, http://escapetomargaritavillemusical.com. Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.