(February 21, 2018) Escape to Margaritaville: The Musical was, overall, a lighthearted and fun evening. I didn’t leave the theatre deeply moved or changed. But I did leave with a smile on my face, having had fun. The story is very reminiscent of Mamma Mia! but in the tropics, without the three dad story and with a little bit more integrity. Whereas ABBA’s music is complex and could have lent itself to a much deeper story, the music of Jimmy Buffett is mostly shallow and fun.
The story follows your typicial laid back, and not-ready-for-love guy (Tully) who works at a resort somewhere in the tropics as a bar singer. Reminiscent of Fiyero’s ‘those who don’t try never look foolish’ line in Wicked, his philosophy is ‘if you don’t try, you can’t fail.’ Expertly played by Paul Alexander Nolan, the character does come across as charming enough. He lacks the Fiyero-esque likability factor for the first bit of the first act, almost as though book writer Mike O’ Malley surveyed a crowd and regurgitated the cliché lines they said they’d expect to hear from a player. The character is likable, though, and his heart changes as the story goes on, though I wouldn’t say in a particularly meaningful way.
Rachel, played by Alison Luff, was the anchor of the show. The character is ambitious, driven and, again with the clichés, cut off from love. Your typical gorgeous brainy girl that doesn’t have a man because she’s too focused on her job. Rachel is vacationing only to be supportive of her soon-to-be-married best friend Tammy (Lisa Howard). Oh and to collect soil samples for work. Along comes Tully who (take a shot every time I say the word cliche) is a cliche shock to Rachel as a wild and free spirit and introduces the (take a shot!) cliche notion that Rachel needs to relax and loosen up.
The show is, as I have now said three times, full of musical theatre and bad romantic comedy cliches. Whether it be a *completely* unnescessary and out of place tap number in act two, the equally unnescessary ballad sung by Tully and Brick, a likeable goofy (shot!) cliché plus-sized funny sidekick (played by Eric Petersen) towards the end of the show. The characters are all mostly one-dimensional, with some moments of depth for each in act two. Rema Webb and Don Sparks play Marley and J.D., she a middle aged eccentric and funny hotel owner, he an old horny salt enthusiast with a past we are forced to learn about through unnescessary song towards the end of the show. A very forced, and…just take a shot… love story is introduced and eventually carried through by the end of the show. It’s unnescessary and these two characters do little to nothing to move the plot forward, but Webb in particular is hilarious and a joy to watch.
Despite the flaws, I really loved the show. Perhaps it is because I went in with such low expectations, perhaps it’s because I went solely for the purpopse of seeing Alison Luff on stage again. But the show does have heart, and it does have a few delightfully feminist, and occasionally touching moments. For every cringe-worthy joke (including a quick argument over the pronounciation of the word buffet), there is a ‘Cheeseburger In Paradise’ moment, which surprisingly ended up being a song that carried out one of the more important messages of the show. *Spoiler* I was TRULY hoping that Luff’s character Rachel would not end up compromising her ambition for love, and she did not. She ends up with both. */Spoiler*
The show’s biggest strength is that it does not try to be something that it’s not. No one expects this show to be anything but what it is, fun, colorful and entertaining. I went in inevitably ready to compare this show to On Your Feet! which boasted a fantastic cast and obviously excellent score, but which tried and failed to paint an empowering picture of Gloria Estefan. This show doesn’t enter even remotely deep territory. It keeps it on the surface. You know it is going to turn out alright for all involved and you’re fine with that because the road to get there is filled with laughs, bright costumes, and incredibly high-energy choreography.
The cast is flawless. Paul Alexander Nolan was a standout in Bright Star, a show with near bulletproof material, and he elevats this show. He sings with ease and confidence, and has an undeniable ability to charm those he is onstage with. He is better than the material he has been given, but he plays with it nicely. Alison Luff, as I mentioned, is magnetic. She had 100% of my attention every single time she came onstage, and I loved seeing a character played by such a gorgeous actress also have a huge brain and a dry wit. My only complaint is that her voice is not fully showcased until the very end where she lets loose during curtain call. Lisa Howard plays Tammy, an overweight and sweetly naive bride-to-be who is routinely fat-shamed by her equally tubby white-trash fiance (funny how that works!). She’s hilarious and has such fun energy, also a brilliant voice. Eric Petersen does his best with material that doesn’t really think outside the box (a la Ogie in Waitress). He does manage to charm the audience but I thought of him as less of an adorable sidekick and more of just a nicer person genetically engineered to be compatible with Tammy. Rema Webb plays Marley, and while her role doesn’t do much for the plot (they tried and failed to re-create Justice from Rock of Ages), she is exquisite as an actress. Don Sparks does a very nice job with a rather annoying and *shot* cliché/stereotypically old man role who is convinced that his younger female counterpart is in love with him despite literally no evidence.
Marks (out of 10)