One of the great joys, and sometimes horrors, of seeing a new jukebox musical comes with the discovery of how its creators will graft a plot onto a bunch of well known and beloved songs. Some shows go the bio-drama way, depicting, with varying degrees of truth, the singers and songwriters who first brought the music to the world. Think Jersey Boys or Motown. Others try to bring an original story to the stage, making the plot zig and zag in an attempt to stuff everyone’s favorite (Abba) hits into a two hour show.
But in the case, of the Jimmy Buffett extravaganza Escape to Margaritaville book writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley and director Christopher Ashley appear to have decided on trying something a little different. Margaritaville lulls the audience in with a show that at first seems a comfortable day at the beach before erupting a volcano of utter weirdness and fun onto the stage.
Margaritaville begins with a well-worn flip-flop of a plot, as laid back boy Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) meets uptight girl Rachael (Alison Luff). A beach bar singer at Margaritaville, a third rate Caribbean island resort, Tully is a love ’em–because they’ll leave in a week–kind of guy. Meanwhile tourist Rachael spends her first few scenes on the island in search of a good cell signal to work through her vacation. Nolan’s innate charm prevents Tully from descending into sad sleaziness, while Luff gives Rachael an earnest ambition to save the world that elevates the character beyond the surface cliches.
Two other will-they-or-won’t-they couples round out the lead cast, including Bartender Brick (Eric Petersen) and Rachael’s best friend Tammy (Ryann Redmond), on her bachelorette last week of freedom; and resort owner Marley (Rema Webb) and aging barfly/local pilot J.D (Don Sparks).
Many of the characters’ backstories come from Buffett songs, bringing a sweet depth to their singing conversations. We see Buffett’s great talent for musical storytelling throughout the show, highlighted especially in a couple of scenes when Rachael and Tully compare their daddy non-issues and love for their fathers as they break into layered renditions of “It’s My Job” and “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” and when Tully and Brick learn of J.D’s past in “He Went to Paris.”
Still the over abundance of love plots running around Margaritaville, point to a usual happily ever after, life’s a beach, ending. But something strange happens along the way to the characters finding their place in the sand and sun, as Garcia and O’Malley’s book wrecks us upon many a crazy sea shoal.
From volcano eruptions to green energy power potatoes to a dazzling sharply choreographed (by Kelly Devine) chorus line of zombie insurance salesmen, under director Ashley’s steady navigation, Margaritaville sails back and forth from familiar love stories to bat shit insanity, or perhaps more appropriate for this case, seagull guano looniness.
At the same time, the cast and creative crew find hidden meaning in some of Buffett’s silliest songs. Redmond manages to turn “Cheeseburger in Paradise” into a female empowerment anthem that made me want to give a you-go-girl shout at the end. Even scenic designer Walt Spangler finds ways to add touches of the bizarre to the proceedings, like a flock of giant rather menacing parrots gazing down upon the stage and audience.
This Broadway at the Hobby Center presentation of Margaritaville is a short stop on the show’s mini-tour before it brings Buffett to Broadway in early 2018. And while not all of its bold–as the colors of a Hawaiian shirt–high-kicking moves land gracefully, in the end Margaritaville manages to bring a fun absurdity to the old jukebox musical form.
Escape to Margaritaville runs through November 5 at the Hobby Center.