Friday, November 17, 2017

Parrotheads in Paradise? Lively 'Escape to Margaritaville' Should Delight Jimmy Buffett Fans — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Escape to Margaritaville 
a new musical featuring Jimmy Buffet songs
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 2

With due respect to his vast popularity over several decades, his legions of adoring fans known as Parrotheads, his seemingly quite genial personality and the truth that I've never delved too deeply into his music, let's just say that Jimmy Buffett has never been my cup of tequila.  

Despite attending well over 700 concerts by more than 300 different artists, I have never considered seeing him, even as he continues to fill arenas, amphitheaters and the occasional stadium--e.g. Wrigley Field, my favorite venue--at the age of 70.

I haven't particularly enjoyed my rare visits to the Cheeseburger in Paradise or Margaritaville restaurants & bars--named for Buffett's two best-known songs--and while I agree with his seeming philosophy that sometimes you just have to slow down and savor things, I haven't ever bought into his "way of life" brand.

Call me a killjoy, dweeb, whatever, but I'm happier spending hours in an art museum than a few minutes drinking on a tropical beach. Yet I honestly have no antipathy toward Buffett or his fans, just apathy.  

Still, excited to see any new musical, especially one heading to Broadway, I Spotifamiliarized myself with several Buffett songs incorporated into Escape to Margaritaville's World Premiere in San Diego earlier this year--the songlist seems to have changed a bit--and arrived at the ornate Oriental Theatre with an open mind.

And I genuinely enjoyed the show.

Not in an "OMG! It's the best thing I've ever seen" sort of way, or even a "I can't wait to see it again" sense, but though not brilliant theater, I found it to be rather well done.

And quite likable without thinking about it too deeply. 

Sure, its contrived storyline built around several tunes Buffett wrote or recorded is slight even compared to Mamma Mia standards.

So I can easily imagine those with even less affinity—or tolerance—for Buffett’s music and tropical paradise trappings not loving it simply as musical theater.

But let’s face it, it's--smartly given their loyalty and spending power--aimed at the proud Parrothead community.

And without insinuating that any of them couldn't also be discriminating about the fun but flimsy book by Greg Garcia & Mike O'Malley, I expect those who love Jimmy Buffett should largely love Escape to Margaritaville.

At the same time, non-converts like me should at least respect that Buffett knows how to write a catchy tune, and appreciate that Garcia/O'Malley, director Christopher Ashley--a Broadway pro who's helmed Memphis, Come From Away and more--choreographer Kelly Devine and an appealing cast have put together a sprightly, well-paced affair.

As with Mamma Mia--the ABBA musical to which Escape to Margaritaville is akin in using Buffett songs to tell an original story, not a biographical one--much of the conceivable fun for his fans should come from being surprised at how certain beloved songs fit into the narrative.

So while much of this pleasure escaped me sans inherent love for most of the tunes--and I was a bit clued in from reading about the La Jolla Playhouse production--I will be circumspect about details concerning the placement of certain songs, and even some foreshadowing references tied to them.

The show begins with a musician named Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) pensively strumming and singing on a beach before leading an effusive chorus number reflecting his role as head entertainer of the Margaritaville Hotel & Bar, run by Marley (Rema Webb) on an unspecified tropical island.

Though the resort, at which Brick (Eric Petersen) is the bartender and Tully's best friend, is a bit ramshackle, guests arrive en masse, including a pair of women from Cincinnati, Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard), ostensibly there for one last hurrah before the latter gets married to a doofus named Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart).

Rachel is an environmental scientist intent on studying the energy-producing effects of volcanic soil, and per one of Buffett's other best-known songs, the island just happens to have a live "Volcano."

Leaving the specifics for you to uncover, lets just say that Tully and Rachel--who make for an attractive couple--and Brick and Tammy, a comedic one, eventually pair off and among the songs sung are "Ragtop Days," "Fins," "It's My Job," "Three Chords" and "Son of a Son of a Sailor."

Also on hand at "Margaritaville"--and yes, that classic is played, actually rather movingly--is a jocular old writer named J.D. (Don Sparks), who partakes of the kind of libations that make their way into many a Buffett tune.

I don't think it would ruin much element of surprise to know that he leads an audience singalong of "Why Don't We Get Drunk"..."and screw."

Along with a few sophomoric jokes, this is the most risque thing that happens in Escape to Margaritaville, which per the Buffett brand, always keeps things rather sunny. I also couldn't help but appreciate a heavy dose of goofy puns, most voiced by J.D.

While no one will mistake Act One of this show for Les Miserables, after intermission it feels like a mad dash to the tiki bar as narrative twists come fast & furious primarily for the purpose of working in relevant Buffett songs.

Most effective of these, in terms of theatrical exposition, is "He Went to Paris," which serves to tell a moving backstory about one of the characters.

Others you'll hear include "Cheeseburger in Paradise"--complete with actual cheeseburgers onstage--"Love and Luck," "Tin Cup Chalice," "Come Monday" and "One Particular Harbor."

Even with a couple additional songs after the fine cast takes their bows, Escape to Margaritaville clocks in well under 2-1/2 hours, so no one will wind up wastin' away for too long. 

As one would expect, Walt Spangler's set design and Paul Tazewell's costumes are festively colorful, and with deference to the talented team involved--including Buffett--this isn't a musical meant to make you ponder the meaning of life, more so just avoid it for a night.

Perhaps to varying degrees per one's pre-existing fondness for Jimmy Buffett, his music and worldview, just relax and enjoy Escape to Margaritaville.

Even if you might not be able to remember much of it in the morning.

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