“License to Chill,” the opening number in “Escape to Margaritaville,” the new dopey-fun Broadway-bound musical that strings together Jimmy Buffett’s relaxed and randy songs, could serve as the show’s mission statement.
Although I was stone cold sober, I am fairly certain that alcohol could only have an improving effect on this kind of entertainment. Margaritas were being served at La Jolla Playhouse, where the show is having its world premiere, and the lines for refueling during intermission seemed unusually raucous for a Sunday matinee.
Regardless of what anyone was drinking, the high spirits were infectious. But let me come clean about something: I am not the musical’s target audience. Before seeing the show, I couldn’t tell you the title of one Buffett song, though naturally when I heard “Margaritaville,” the number that closes the first act, I lip-synced along with the rest of the audience, the lyrics implanted in my brain through cultural osmosis.
Jukebox musicals, with few exceptions, depress me. (If I had to pay for tickets, I’d see on average zero a year.) “Escape to Margaritaville” follows the IKEA-factory example of “Mamma Mia!” Buffett contributed a few new songs for the show, but the book by TV writers Greg Garcia (“Yes, Dear,” “My Name Is Earl” and “Raising Hope”) and Mike O’Malley (“Survivor’s Remorse,” “Shameless”) is a sitcom contraption designed to contain as many hits as possible.
True to its title, “Escape to Margaritaville” is pure escapism. These things are difficult to quantify, but I’d imagine the theatergoing experience is equivalent to watching four or five “Two and a Half Men” reruns back to back.
Still, I have a sworn obligation as a theater critic to give it to you straight: I had a good time. I’m not exactly proud of the fact. In fact, I’m wondering if I’m getting soft in my middle age. The show isn’t striving for the sophisticated storytelling of “Fun Home” or “Hamilton,” but if you want a silly diversion with music and lyrics that could get Falstaff karaoke-ing, “Escape to Margaritaville” is just the ticket.
Recalling the book is a bit like trying to reassemble cotton candy. The action is largely set at an island resort that doesn’t live up to its brochure but manages to persuade its guests to leave their cares behind. (Walter Spangler’s scenic design conjures just the right tacky-festive ambiance.)
Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), the lounge singer and resident lothario, has a new fling with each weekly influx of ferrying tourists. He’s upfront about his wildcatting. His ambition is to enjoy himself while giving pleasure to others. Vacation fantasy is his reality, but life gets more complicated when he falls for a woman whose workaholic personality is the opposite of his own.
Rachel (Alison Luff) has traveled to the island with her best friend, Tammy (Lisa Howard), who is about to get married to a creep who wants her to lose weight before the wedding. While Tammy downs shots of tequila, Rachel is frantically trying to get a wireless signal to see whether the venture capital came through for her project to develop an alternative energy source from a potato.
A beauty with no time for romance, Rachel is more interested in sampling island soil than going for a swim, never mind sleeping with the playboy of the Margaritaville Hotel and Bar staff. Tully, whose desire is intensified by Rachel’s resistance, offers to take her to the nearby volcano with his buddy Brick (Charlie Pollock), a nice if none-too-bright bartender, who (spoiler alert!) doesn’t think Tammy needs to diet at all.
Chekhov’s dictum about a gun shown in the first act having to go off in the second apparently also applies to volcanoes in jukebox musicals. But it would be silly of me to test your patience with the story, when I could be describing the spontaneous sing-along that breaks out when J.D. (a spirited Don Sparks), an old goat who’s always putting the moves on no-nonsense hotel proprietor Marley (Rema Webb), breaks out into the Buffett anthem “Why Don’t We Get Drunk.” The audience was more than happy to supply the rest of the lyrics, singing “and screw” after each time the song’s title question was raised.
Christopher Ashley, who just won a Tony Award for his direction of “Come From Away,” knows how to keep the musical trains running on time. His production might be the Platonic ideal of a Las Vegas musical: Broadway showmanship for the tourist masses.
The supporting characters are too cartoonish for my liking, and the way the hotel workers flirt with racial stereotypes is cringingly retrograde. But the leads all have textured individuality.
Broadway and La Jolla Playhouse veteran Nolan (“Bright Star,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and Luff make a winning theatrical pair. Their stage presences and compelling singing bind them more than their story line. This is a tale of two performers making the most of their musical opportunities.
As the sidekicks, Pollock and Howard have to wade through some humiliating shtick. Pollock’s slow-witted Brick might be best described as the dullest can opener in the drawer. Howard’s Tammy, whose weight issues are an object of humor and sympathy, has to contend with a musical number centered on a tray of meat patties. Both actors maintain their dignity by being not only good sports but also genuine talents.
The way lyrics inspire gags and plot devices might strike knowledgeable Buffett fans as clever. But from a purely musical theater storytelling standpoint, the incorporation of missing saltshakers (“Margaritaville”) and stinking feet (“My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus”) is embarrassing. The bigger quandary is how can a happy ending that is completely preposterous leave you feeling upbeat?
“Escape to Margaritaville” requires not just suspension but inebriation of disbelief. But the show’s secret, I suspect, lies in the songwriting brilliance of Buffett, whose music offers a holiday from the rules and restraints of everyday life. In celebrating laid-back virtues, his songs remind that the road is hard for everyone and that “winners and losers … We're all qualified, for a license to chill.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Escape to Margaritaville’
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions); ends July 9
Cost: Start at $69
Info: (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
MORE THEATER COVERAGE: