Are you tired of winter in New York? Does the idea of getting day-drunk at a Sandals resort appeal to you? Does your ideal theatergoing experience occur in a Marriott hotel and feature a lobby tiki bar? If you answered yes to all of the above, may I recommend Escape to Margaritaville, the new jukebox musical built around the sunburnt, boozy oeuvre of Jimmy Buffett? However if, as for me, only the first question in that list evokes a “Damn straight” from you, well then, let me buy you an umbrellaless drink and we can bond over the queasy feeling of being the grumpy person in the room, the one who’s just not feeling the vibe, man. I didn’t arrive at the Marquis Theatre bent on harshing the buzz, but as the show unfolded, I found myself overcome with that specific sensation — part boredom, part annoyance, part melancholy — you get when you show up to a party sober and all your friends are high. And you have to be at work early the next morning. And you don’t even like pot. And everyone ate all the snacks.
It’s not that I hate fun. Fun is great! I love fun! Every now and again, I even love shiny, high-budget, well-constructed dumb fun based on a big-name brand. But Escape to Margaritaville is about as much fun as buying a dud hermit crab as a pet. It seems like it’ll be exotic, or at least cute, but it’s really kind of sad, and definitely a rip-off, and, at the end of the day, actually just an empty shell.
Here’s the gist: Tully Mars (the tan, grinning, musically gifted Paul Alexander Nolan) is a young Jimmy Buffett avatar — hotter than the source material, as fictional versions of ourselves tend to be — strumming his six-string on an unnamed Caribbean island. Tully’s a laid-back fellow, happy to earn a few bucks as the in-house entertainment at the local resort, the (duh) Margaritaville Hotel and Bar, run by the sassy, no-nonsense Marley (Rema Webb, sporting arched eyebrows and an array of floral maxi dresses). The hotel’s seen better days — with its broken porch swing and dirty dishes it’s a touch more ramshackle than, say, Latitude Margaritaville, the retirement community that real-life Jimmy Buffett is opening next year in Daytona Beach — but Marley and Tully keep their swarms of tourists happy with constantly flowing music and booze, the latter courtesy of Tully’s good buddy, Brick the bartender (Eric Petersen as the doofy sidekick). There’s also the cheerful dishwasher, Jamal (Andre Ward, chillin’ in tie-dye and a Jamaican accent), and the absent-minded old regular, J.D. (the grizzled, affable Don Sparks), a Viagra-popping former adventuring type who now spends his days scribbling his memoirs on cocktail napkins and trying to get in Marley’s sarong. He’s 76; she’s 45. If you’re wondering whether he gets his wish in the end, well, I hate to spoil the magic, but here’s a hint: Most of the audience in the Marquis looks like J.D. So sure, why not.
For Tully, life is all guitar-plucking, dreaming about owning a boat, and dallying with cute tourists who head back home after a week in paradise. “You see,” he philosophizes to Brick, “I look at romance like I look at the ocean. It’s better enjoyed on the surface … But you dive down, go deeper, things get darker.” Tully’s not about commitment. He’s taking full advantage of his “License to Chill” (the show’s first bravura number), and his biggest worry — though it should maybe be melanoma — is making sure his weekly flings don’t keep in touch. So of course, according to the sacred commandments of Cliché Romantic Comedy 101, he’s all set up to fall head over heels for a smart, hardworking, ambitious, and largely humorless but extraordinarily hot girl.
Enter Rachel, played by Alison Luff, in strong voice in one of those wonderful feminist-written-by-two-dudes parts. Rachel’s an environmental scientist who looks like a Pantene model. She’s driven and serious and she’s taking her best friend, Tammy (the charming Lisa Howard as the chubby, funny BFF; yes, hot girls still have chubby, funny BFFs), on a bachelorette getaway in the Caribbean. Tammy’s engaged to the obviously horrible Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart, with bro voice and beer belly), who mostly ignores her while he binge-watches hockey, but cares enough to make sure she’s on a carrot-juice-and-sunflower-seed diet in order to fit into the wedding dress that he purposely ordered a size too small for her.
What could possibly happen when our two lovely ladies meet Tully and Brick? Could it be that the hot ones fall for each other? Could it further be that the chubby, funny ones fall for each other too? (Brick’s got his own beer belly, but he thinks Tammy’s beautiful just the way she is, and the two of them love stupid puns, so really, it’s a match made in a Cheeseburger in Paradise fast-casual restaurant.) Could it be that, despite the seductions of Tully’s relaxed-to-the-max lifestyle, Rachel jets back to Cincinnati at the end of Act One, fond of our flip-flop-wearing hero but dedicated to saving the planet with her groundbreaking research? Could it be that Tully follows her — with Brick and Marley and J.D. in tow, no less?
Yes, it could very well be that all such high jinks and more ensue as Escape to Margaritaville fills out its two hours and twenty minutes. Which of course are painstakingly structured around 24 songs from the sandy, sunny Buffett canon. (Twenty-five, if you count “It’s My Job,” a reworded-for-the-show ballad that becomes Rachel’s solo, which here sounds like a cookie-cutter number about ambition and motivation and thus sticks out like a pale Vermonter at a swim-up Bahamas bar.) Someone will lose a shaker of salt. Someone will get a brand-new tattoo. Someone will nibble on sponge cake. Someone’s life story will involve an actress named Kim and a young son named Jim. And a whole lot of someones won’t know where to go when threatened by the impending explosion of the long-slumbering mountain that looms over the Margaritaville Hotel and Bar.
In a way, Escape to Margaritaville is unlucky. It’s hit New York as another fluffy, costly musical involving a volcanic disaster and a stunning amount of beachwear is playing just a few blocks away. And actually, Margaritaville’s best moments happen when director Christopher Ashley decides to take things just briefly into over-the-top weirdoland, a realm where Buffett’s yellow and porous counterpart lives full-time. Tammy gets to levitate, Peter Pan-style, out of her ecstatic love of cheeseburgers; there are some ridiculous chorus-members-as-giant-dancing-clouds during an escape-by-airplane sequence; and there’s a truly odd subplot involving a bunch of tap-dancing zombie insurance agents.
But while SpongeBob SquarePants is undoubtedly just as commercial as the next big Broadway adaptation of a popular brand, it has the advantage of a clever book that feels both genuinely joyous and playfully deliberate in its use of formula. By contrast, the story sketched around Buffett’s big hits by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley has all the freshness of a rerun of Friends, and roughly the same kind of network-TV humor and gender dynamics. It’s the Runaway Bride school of feminism: If we delay the inevitable union of our cute straight couple long enough for them both to “find themselves,” then we can feel like we live in 2018 and still end with a wedding. If Escape to Margaritaville had been written in the ’50s, its plot would have been Boy Lives on Island, Girl Goes to Island, Boy Gets Girl. If it had been written in the ’90s, it would have been, Boy Lives on Island, Girl Goes to Island, Boy Follows Girl Back to Cincinnati, Boy Gets Girl. Now there are a few more self-actualization-based twists to get us to that final step, but get there we will — as surely as the show will feature a Buffett/buffet pronunciation joke.
It’s a strange if predictable irony that Tully must grow out of the layabout lifestyle and discover his own ambition in order to win Rachel’s heart — all while (world’s most obvious spoiler alert) achieving eventual fame and fortune by singing songs about drinking, sailing, and girls in bikinis. But, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s fantastic recent feature in the Times points out, not even Jimmy Buffett lives the Jimmy Buffett life anymore. Of course not; no one with a net worth of $550 million can. But Buffett has fashioned himself into a troubadour of comfy escapism, and in the end, even Tully’s rise from slackerdom is part of that same fantasy: from beach bum to rock star. The true American dream.
And hey, in the audience-absolving words of Ted (also Andre Ward), the hip black agent who discovers Tully playing in a bar: “Acoustic guitar, songs about the beach, Hush Puppy shoes … White people love that kinda shit.” If the whoops, hollers, and singing along by the sea of white people around me at the Marquis are any indication, Ted’s right. Jimmy Buffett sells a product plenty of people love to buy. Only one older woman behind me seemed a little disappointed: “It’s just … I thought he’d be in it,” she said to her husband, as they made their way through the souvenir beach balls, past the Margaritaville merchandise stand, back to chilly reality.