BWW Review: ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE Offers Splashy, Frothy Fun in Tour Debut at Providence Performing Arts Center
Ignore the New York reviews. "Escape to Margaritaville," the Jimmy Buffett musical which opened its national tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center this week, is two hours of wry, high-energy fun. The music, of course, is a delight, but the book is also full of clever moments and the cast -- of mostly newcomers -- sparkle.
Part of the fun of a jukebox musical is watching how the writers reverse-engineer a plot around the fixed points of pre-existing songs, and writers Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley do a creditable job, both at the macro level (setting the story on a volcanic Caribbean island) and down to the phrase level in some numbers (with broad winks to the audience in the setups for "pop top" and "lost shaker of salt.") The wordplay, low puns, and tight pacing are enough to keep things moving (if you don't stop to think about it too much -- and why would you do that?)
As you'd expect from a Buffett musical, the story revolves around love, escapism, and a fair bit of onstage drinking. Uptight scientist Rachel (Sarah Hinrichsen) accompanies her soon-to-be married friend Tammy (Shelly Lynn Walsh) on a week-long trip from frozen Cincinnati to the island hotel (and bar, of course) of Margaritaville. There, they meet the resident singer-songwriter, Tully (Chris Clark) and scaredy-cat bartender Brick (Peter Michael Jordan) who will become their love interests -- at least for the week. One-eyed barfly J.D. (Patrick Cogan, who has enormous fun with the part), broken-armed busboy Jamal (Matthew James Sherrod), and owner Marley (Rachel Lyn Fobbs) round out the regulars.
If the conflict is a bit manufactured (Rachel's preoccupation with getting funding for her experiments keeps her from enjoying herself; Tammy's controlling fiancé makes her an eager flirt) it's frankly in service of moving the plot along to get to Buffett's songs, all of which the cast delivers with energy and style.
Amy Anders Corcoran's direction and Kelly Devine's choreography combine to delightful effect for all the well-known tunes. Whether it's fiancé Chadd (Noah Bridgestock) and his buddy warning the departing vacationers about "land sharks" ("Fins"), Tully leading bar patrons in the diagetic "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," the title number, "Margaritaville," done as an Act I close, the clever staging of "Volcano," with Jamal strumming a ukelele as guests flee in terror, or the back-in-Cincinnati "Cheeseburger in Paradise," the ensemble delivers high-energy, tightly choreographed musical numbers. The ballads, especially "Son of a Son of a Sailor," and "He Went To Paris" are well-placed and beautifully staged.
Hinrichsen is a standout as Rachel. In her national tour debut, she exudes charm and charisma, with powerful stage presence and great vocals. It's a Broadway-caliber performance. The other three leads are also touring for the first time. Chris Clark brings a powerful vocal energy to the songs and offers character depth as Tully, ably selling his turn from shallow lounge singer to Rachel's love interest. Shelly Lynn Walsh has impeccable comedic timing, and her Tammy is a great foil to Rachel and a delight to watch. Peter Michael Jordan's turn as Brick is clever fun, including a hallucinated tap dance number with dead insurance agents that is as loopy and over-the-top as it sounds, and he more than holds his own with the very talented dancers.
The whole chorus deserves a few words of praise. Every minute they're onstage -- whether as drunken patrons, lounging beachgoers, rehearsal party attendees, or, yes, hallucinated insurance agents -- they are solid, animated, and committed, and they help sell the show (especially in Paul Tazewell's bright, eye-candy costumes). Especially here, where the plot is admittedly not the main attraction, the chorus plays a critical role. They bring maximum effort to every number, and deserve credit for the show's success.
That's not to say the book is without its flaws -- much of what the New York reviews said is admittedly true. It's a thin plot, with familiar characters, a hard fail on the Bechdel Test, and some problematic post-colonial undertones. None of which should be ignored, and if those are things that are likely to make you ghost the second act, you might choose to skip.
But we don't always go to the theater to be challenged by sophisticated material. Sometimes, we just want the equivalent of a summer action flick. In this reviewer's opinion, the New York critics were looking for a single malt or a Riesling, and this show is, well, a colorful, tasty frozen Margarita. If you can take it on its own terms, you'll have a most enjoyable evening.
Jimmy Buffett's "Escape to Margaritaville," directed by Amy Anders Corcoran (based on original direction by Christopher Ashley), at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI, through October 5. Tickets $38-$83 at the box office, by phone at (401) 421-2787, or at http://ppacri.org. National tour dates and tickets available at http://escapetomargaritavillemusical.com/
Photo courtesy Matthew Murphy.