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BWW Review: Jimmy Buffett Jukeboxer ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE is Breezy, Mindless Fun


The smiling, bobbing head and swaying shoulders of the self-proclaimed Parrothead who accompanied this Jimmy Buffett neophyte to the breezy fun new jukebox musical comedy, Escape to Margaritaville, seemed proof enough that fans of the Mississippi-born singer/songwriter known for carefree Caribbean-inspired melodies should have a swell time.

Escape to Margaritaville
Lisa Howard, Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan
and Eric Petersen (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

And despite this reviewer's affection for musicals with original scores, he'll readily admit that director Christopher Ashley and bookwriters Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley have achieved their obvious goal of providing pleasantly diverting mindless fun, full of good humor, colorful surroundings and some terrifically engaging performances.

Bucking the bio-musical trend of hits like JERSEY BOYS and BEAUTIFUL, Escape to Margaritaville showcases over two dozen Buffett songs in an... well, calling it an original story might be overly generous. Let's just say innovation is not the intention here.

What goes a long way in making it work is that the authors have managed to craft a plot that almost reasonably connects the pre-existing songs (there are new ones, too) into something resembling an integrated score. Buffett wrote a song about a volcano? Okay, make a character an environment scientist working with volcanic soil. A song about cheeseburgers? Okay, have a character struggling to stay on a diet. A song about being comforted by things like grapefruit and Juicy Fruit? Okay, that's the "Whistle a Happy Tune" moment. "Why Don't We Get Drunk (And Screw)"? There's the audience participation number! Wait, the main character needs a philosophy of life song. "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere"? Perfect!

Aficionados of the Jimmy Buffett oeuvre will notice lyric revisions here and there to better match the goings-on, but another swig of margarita from your theatre sippy cup and it really won't matter.

Paul Alexander Nolan, whose beautiful high baritone and dashing stage charisma added much-needed flash to short-lived Broadway projects like DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and BRIGHT STAR, takes it down a notch in this one, playing the laid back, guitar strumming Caribbean resort entertainer, Tully, who works at a dive called, you guessed it, Margaritaville.

Using a play list that just happens to include a lot of Buffett tunes, Tully spends most of his workday at the bar, entertaining week-long guests and invariably getting sexually involved with at least one woman in every group, who he lets down easy at the stay's end.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, soon-to-be bride Tammy (Lisa Howard, sporting fine comic chops and a knockout belt) is heading out the door with her environmental scientist friend Rachel (solid singing and acting from Alison Luff in the musical's least-colorful role), flying out to be part of Tully's latest group of vacationers. This is meant to be a week-long bachelorette party for Tammy, but her controlling fiancé Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart) insists she sticks to his strict diet so that she can fit into her wedding gown and eventually get thin enough for his approval.

Once Tammy arrives at Margaritaville, she draws the attention of the lovable lug bartender Brick (adorably goofy Eric Peterson), who thinks she's perfect just the way she is and... you know where this one's going.

And while Rachel is ready for fun as well, she's also making a quick detour to pick up volcanic soil samples as part of her goal to harness an inexpensive energy source through vegetation. Impressed with her brains and her ambition (and yeah, her looks) Tully begins falling in love with Rachel, but his lack of ambition stands in the way of their relationship going anywhere.

Escape to Margaritaville
Andre Ward and Company
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

While there appears to be an effort on the part of the authors to make Rachel more than just "the girl" in the story, perhaps it's the decidedly male voice of Buffett's lyrics that keep the character from being more fully developed. And while Lisa Howard is a hoot, she's pretty much relegated to playing the same kind of defined-by-her-weight character that she played in her last Broadway appearance, IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU. Hopefully there'll be a greater variety of options for this talented pro in the future.

The fun characters contributing to the antics include the seasoned beachcomber and retired pilot J.D. (Don Sparks), who spends much of Act I searching for his lost shaker of salt (seriously), the tough as nails resort owner Marley (Rema Webb) and handyman and masseuse Jamal (Andre Ward), who apparently can make up for his broken arm with his foot.

Choreographer Kelly Devine keeps the terrific ensemble perpetually in party mode and it's nice to see that the roster of guests cavorting on stage includes at least one fun-loving gay couple and an energetic reveler played by larger-sized Ryann Redmond, who seems to have no problem attracting the attention of buff straight guys.

Add some dancing clouds, an out-of-the-blue tap number, some silly flying moments and the obligatory beach balls in the audience finale, and Escape to Margaritaville is a sunny, funny excursion. Check your brain at the door, get a refill in your sippy cup and go have a blast.

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