Is it possible to make Jimmy Buffett music both sexy and funny in 2018? That’s apparently the goal of Escape to Margaritaville, a new musical featuring his hits that opens on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre on Thursday night. Unless you’ve never been in a dive bar and Instagram accounts for the majority of your cultural exposure, you’ll recognize early on the high degree to which Buffett’s music and lyrics inform the plot, ultimately with humorous and uplifting — but not-so-groundbreaking — results.
As Buffett’s real-life story goes, he started a multimillion-dollar empire singing about “wasting away” in sun-drenched locales, feeding a “carnivorous habit” with cheeseburgers, indulging in booze-drenched romance, and recovering from hangover-laden heartbreak in a bucket of beer. His fans — known as Parrotheads — can create their own blurry memories at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, a chain of restaurants, resorts, casinos, and retail shops where the Buffett lifestyle is just an American Express swipe away. All of it is presented with a middle-aged wink: This was designed for Baby Boomers who need a respite from the winter weather down south, who want to sing along to that hit they listened to while getting stoned on the beach in the ’70s. And when a random stay just isn’t enough, they can retire to a Margaritaville-branded senior living facility being developed in — you guessed it! — Florida.
But with Escape to Margaritaville, Buffett Inc. and Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away) seem determined to appeal to a wider demographic. Enter Tully, played by Bright Star‘s Paul Alexander Nolan, a 20-something singer and heartbreaker whose disdain for hard work doesn’t track with his muscle mass. He meets and quickly falls for Rachel (Alison Luff), an ambitious environmental scientist whose best friend, the sassy Tammy (Lisa Howard), tells her she needs to work less and let loose more.
These broad-stroked folks are brought together at the fictional Margaritaville Hotel in the Caribbean for Tammy’s bachelorette weekend, which doubles as Rachel’s research trip to a nearby volcano. Things are about to get sizzling up in here, the first few scenes want us to believe, and while Nolan’s Tully and Luff’s Rachel do look and sound gorgeous singing next to each other, their performances are constrained by underwritten, one-dimensional characters and millennial clichés. Rachel looks up to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg! Tully hates modern civilization and technology! Tammy’s terrible fiancé criticizes her weight, but bartender Brick (Eric Peterson) thinks she’s perfect just the way she is!
If they sound stereotypically white, that’s because they are. Yes, hotel manager Marley (Rema Webb) and dishwasher Jamal (Andre Ward), two black characters from the Caribbean, stun in a few scenes, and there are two gay men who wear short shorts and casually touch each other (albeit without ever delivering a single line), but these exceptions seem safe, like a dose of diversity that’s just enough to keep everyone happy. And the musical’s book, from TV scribes Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope) and Mike O’Malley (Shameless), is filled with jokes that fall flat (one long-running bit has a character repeatedly searching for — what else? — a lost shaker of salt), at least if you’re on your first round of margaritas the theater offers at the bar.
Thankfully, stellar interpretations of Buffett classics knock off your flip-flops and save the otherwise slow-paced first act. “Why Don’t We Get Drunk?” is sung by the Viagra-using J.D. (along with some encouraged audience participation), in a fantastic and eventually heartfelt performance by Don Sparks that, as the show goes on, speaks to the realities of being an over-the-hill man in America. “Three Chords” ignites Tully and Rachel’s chemistry as she finally seems to accept that she’s not staying at a Ritz-Carlton with Wi-Fi. And choreographer Kelly Devine’s work on “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About” finally delivers the campy, explosive dance number you expect from a Broadway musical, foreshadowing a much more enjoyable, conflict-packed second act that’ll give anyone who’s previously heard “Cheeseburger in Paradise” a case of the giggles.
Unless you’re a die-hard Buffett fan, you might spend a good part of the show wishing you were instead on a real beach, sipping tequila beneath the sun. But after the exciting, beach-balls-bouncing-in-the-audience ending, I had a smile on my face as I headed back into the freezing New York cold — and isn’t that escapism what Buffett’s music is about? B-