Theater Review: ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE (pre-Broadway tryout at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago)

Post image for Theater Review: ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE (pre-Broadway tryout at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on November 16, 2017

in Theater-Chicago,Theater-New York


It’s a jukebox musical that marinates in Gilligan’s Island/South Pacific nostalgia. Plus, it’s got a feel-good love story that’s a creditable excuse for over two dozen Jimmy Buffett “beachabilly” hits. En route to a 2018 Broadway opening next February, La Jolla Playhouse’s origination of Escape to Margaritaville is elaborately likable, even on a shakedown cruise that ain’t smooth sailing. But at its best this tequila-slurping musical fully enlists an audience’s wishful thinking, enough to help us overlook plot holes big enough for a black one.

Though unencumbered by a wizard plot and lumbered with cornball/campy dialogue replete with puns, innuendo and Viagra jokes, this 140-minute confection, with serviceable book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, should please Buffett’s faithful “Parrotheads.” It may even entice a host of newbies, dedicated or converted to the super-songsmith’s cozy-to-enthralling pop pleasures tropicalized by steel guitars. (J.B. was at last night’s opening, generously crooning during the curtain call.)

After visits to New Orleans and Houston, Escape is now ending its tryout tour at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre (its ornate lobby further festooned with tiki-hut décor to match Walter Spangler’s sets). It totally relies on the hokey, memory-mongering, “connect-the-songs” mentality of Mamma Mia! and All Shook Up, merged with the unashamed audience-pleasing of Jersey Boys and Rain. Constructed from the “fish out of water” humor of “opposites who attract,” the vehicular plot contrasts a dreamer who lives for the moment with an over-motivated career woman. Love lets them learn from each other. So do persuasive ditties like the thematically-charged “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and the happy duet “Love and Luck.”

Playing a sweetly swinging surfer dude, Paul Alexander Nolan brings laid-back charm to the Buffett surrogate role of Tully Mars. This beach-bum drifter plays a mean guitar, has a talent for tunes and, as the song goes, is the “son of a son of a sailor.” Meeting cute (he gives her his heirloom “gris-gris” for good luck), Tully becomes a one-man cruise director and “ciceron”-style tour guide to his seeming antithesis. Cunningly contrasted, Rachel (endearing Alison Luff) is an ambitious environmental scientist who’s working on a sustainable fuel cell powered by potatoes.

Joining this Cincinnati tourist is her BFF Tammy (comic relief Lisa Howard), engaged to a lardass lout (Ian Michael Stuart) who wants her to lose weight. Of course, the cardinal rule for this silly stuff means Tammy has to fall for a better catch, goofball Brick (Eric Petersen). He’s a sweet-tempered nebbish whose simple pleasures consist of grapefruit and Juicy Fruit. For choreographic purposes, the happy loser finds himself stalked and haunted by limbo-dancing zombies, the remains of insurance salesmen consumed by the last—1964—eruption of the Caribbean island’s not so dormant volcano—a song cue if ever there was one.

Providing pretexts for the songs is this fluff’s reason for being. So the creators throw in assorted island stereotypes: a sexagenarian, one-eyed author (Don Sparks as J.D.) with major writers block and a buried treasure (not the Long John Silver variety but full of “beautifulness”); a matchmaking, Bloody Mary-like, native matriarch (Rema Webb as Marley) who has a midlife fling with J.D.; and a Bob Marley-wannabe cabana guy (Andre Ward as Jamal), ready to launch a calypso/conga dance at the drop of a song cue.

Indeed, stretching from the sun-and-sand gaiety of this unnamed resort to a wintry Cincinnati beer hall, Kelly Devine’s choreography is all over the map—in the flip-flop fun of “Ragtop Day,” the insouciance of “Last Mango in Paris,” the cavorting of the undead, some snorkel diving suspended in mid-air, even a salute to the carnivore diet in the rampaging production number “Cheeseburger in Paradise” (actually, Ohio). Whether wearing sunscreen or parkas, the 19-member chorus deliver the happiest hoofing this side of Susan Stroman.

But at the heart—there’s no brain—of this folderol lies the sometimes affecting, endlessly protracted, on-and-off romance between a feckless troubadour on an eternal vacation and a driven ecologist who tells him “the moment” just isn’t enough future (“We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About”). Handsome Nolan and adorable Luff—they make beautiful Buffett together, whether “Havana Daydreaming” or looking to land at “One Particular Harbor.”

Somehow we’re to believe that the timely eruption of the local volcano is one more arrow in Cupid’s armament. Then, after Rachel rebuffs Tully’s dogged devotion, the one-week lovers embark on totally different, equally successful, destinies, divergent flight paths that usually don’t permit a second chance.

But, as the title implies, there’s no denying or escaping the trademark registered “Margaritaville.” “Life is a beach,” so “get drunk and screw!” But the raucous finale climaxes all this jumping for joy with a patented happy ending, complete with coconut-tree parasols, electrified palm trees, ceremonial torch dances, and a lot of bouncing beach balls all over the house.

Oh—and you can take the $11 Margaritas into the theater.

photos by Matthew Murphy

Escape to Margaritaville
pre-Broadway tryout
presented by Broadway in Chicago
at the Oriental Theatre until December 2, 2017
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago

begins on Broadway February 17, 2018
for tickets, visit Escape on Broadway


Joel November 27, 2017 at 10:42 am

I enjoyed the show in New Orleans, and flew all the way from NYC to see it in Chicago before its run on Broadway. I gotta say it was well worth the trip. Songs, acting, and atmosphere put you in a festive vacation mode. I ask you, isn’t that why we go?!! To be removed from reality..? I’m going to repeat this experience when it comes to Broadway. (BTW: J.D. and Marley stole the show.)


Donna Ferrigno March 2, 2018 at 3:38 pm

Saw this play on Broadway in NYC and still can’t get it out of my head. Loved the music, loved the cast and everything about this play. A definite must see.

Ali Cheselka March 4, 2018 at 6:13 am

Fun lighthearted island escape from NYC winter! Participation joyfully encouraged, especially from Donna—the BEST usher in the Mezzanine. Enjoy a margarita, dance & sing along~

Mike Young March 14, 2018 at 10:15 pm

As it turns out, I was very lucky to have been stuck in NYC by the recent “cyclone bomb” in early March. With nothing planned, a friend told me ETM was playing in NYC! Without a second thought (I’m a Parrothead from 1982) I booked tickets for me, and a colleague who had never heard of JB (he’s English).

I must admit, I was worried it would be kitsch, but it was not. It was everything J.B.’s music is: happy, sunny, and simple (the way life should be). The choreography and set transitions were very clever, as was the storyline. I really enjoyed the relationship between Brick and Tammy and especially loved the tap dance number (I did NOT see that coming). I thought “Cheeseburger in Paradise” could have been even MORE bible songish.

But the real thrill, the real surprise? Jimmy Buffet made an appearance at the curtain call! I ran down to the front like a 16-year-old at an Ed Sheeran concert!

In a nut shell I loved it; but what of my mate? He loved it too. Which is saying something. And he loved the Margaritas I plied him with. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Comments on this entry are closed.