Review: ‘Escape to Margaritaville’ at the Marquis Theatre

If you’re in the mood for a fun-filled island vacation, look no further than Manhattan Island and the Broadway premiere of Escape to Margaritaville at the Marquis Theatre. With music and lyrics by the iconic Jimmy Buffett and a book by acclaimed TV writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, the feel-good rom-com jukebox musical provides a predictably sunny two-and-a-half-hour getaway for Parrotheads (as Buffett’s devotees are known), who can’t get enough of their idol’s “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll” songs and the beach-bum lifestyle they espouse. For anyone else who needs a short and silly respite from the demands of life and a troubled world, just let loose and enjoy the show, and you, too, might find yourself donning some feathers and a beak, in spite of yourself.

Lisa Howard, Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan, and Eric Petersen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Lisa Howard, Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan, and Eric Petersen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Tony Award-winner Christopher Ashley directs an exuberant cast through a wacky tale of life and love among tourists and locals who meet at the less-than-five-star titular retreat. Rachel (Alison Luff), a smart and pretty workaholic environmental scientist with a potato-based energy plan that could save the world (I told you it was wacky), has come to the island paradise to collect some soil samples, while celebrating the last days before the wedding of her less-ambitious BFF Tammy (Lisa Howard), who isn’t there to cheat on her oafish weight-shaming fiancé (Ian Michael Stuart) back in Cincinnati, just to flirt. But – surprise! – that soon changes, when they encounter Tully, the resort’s seductively attractive and dissolute singer/musician (Paul Alexander Nolan), and his less-polished buddy Brick, the bartender (Eric Petersen). The four of them, along with the hotel’s proprietor Marley (Rema Webb) and long-time barfly J.D. (Don Sparks), all experience “changes in attitudes.” And a volcano.

The story, which contains semi-autobiographical allusions to the track of Buffett’s career, is woven around a song list of his biggest hits and a few new numbers, while referencing their familiar lyrics, playful puns, and hedonistic spirit in running jokes, one-liners, and sight gags (mostly about sex, booze, and drugs) that tie the music together with the characters and their situations. The actors are all top-notch, as they bring Buffett’s vibrant songs to life with their humorous characterizations and powerful vocals on such escapist classics as “Why Don’t We Get Drunk“ (here soliciting the audience to complete the salacious line “and screw”), “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” the eponymous “Margaritaville” (Nolan’s expressive rendition, while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, is touchingly filled with regret, then quickly lightened by the comic interjections of his castmates), and an infectious version of “Volcano” by Andre Ward as the hotel-worker Jamal, who fully delivers the indigenous reggae beat.

Andre Ward. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Andre Ward. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Imaginative scenes of Rachel and Tully snorkeling, and Brick’s flashback-fueled fantasy culminating in an ebullient Rockettes-style tap-dance routine (choreographed by Kelly Devine), add to the general tone of intoxicated loopiness, as do the vacationers’ spontaneous conga line and free-style movement to the music (only a few over-the-top Broadway dance numbers with the full ensemble seem out of tune with the island setting and its hard-partying denizens). There are some serious moments about self-realization, making the right choices, and learning from others, along with the underlying message of treasuring life and those you love (J.D.’s backstory, drawn from “He Went to Paris,” is integral to the moral), but those come without overpowering the overall frivolity and high spirits (and I do mean “high” and “spirits”) of the show and score.

A colorful design evokes the tropical locale, with vivid lighting by Howell Binkley, Walt Spangler’s open-air set of thatched-roof huts and lush mountain scenery, and casual vacation-wear by Paul Tazewell, including the singer’s signature Hawaiian shirts, cut-off shorts, and flip-flops. They provide a telling contrast to the dark bar interior and cold-weather clothing worn by the characters when they’re back in Ohio.

Paul Alexander Nolan and ensemble. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Paul Alexander Nolan and ensemble. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Escape to Margaritaville is everything you’d expect it to be, so grab a margarita, or two, or more (yes, of course, they’re for sale at the island bar in the lobby, and yes, of course, you can bring them into the theater with you), chill out, and enjoy the music and the mood, without having to worry about volcanic eruptions, missed connections, or turbulent rides. It’s “a real trip,” a lot of goofy fun, and an amusing reminder that – as sung in the chorus of Buffett’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” – “if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.

Escape to Margaritaville plays through Sunday, July 1, 2018, at the Marquis Theatre – 210 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (877) 250-2929, or purchase them online.

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Deb Miller
Deb has written reviews, interviews, and feature articles for Stage Magazine, theartblog, and Inferno, and is a lead writer for Phindie.com and the Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice. She is a judge for Theatre Philadelphia's Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, and previously was a Voter for the awards under the former Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Deb holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware, has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and has taught at the U of D, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers-Camden, Hussian School of Art, and Rowan University.