Review: Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Escape to Margaritaville’ at The National Theatre

While short on substance, this show offers audiences a license to chill

Four years ago, I walked into what was then the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda and asked for a sales clerk’s assistance locating one of Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits CDs.

Company of the National Tour of Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Escape to Margaritaville.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

She was stymied.

Would it be in the country section? Rock? Folk?

Indeed, Jimmy Buffett’s distinctive sound is hard to pin down.

His music blends Caribbean, country, rock, folk, and pop music into a good-natured concoction variously classified as “trop rock” or “Gulf and western.”

If anyone deserves a jukebox musical to showcase their songwriting oeuvre, it’s Jimmy Buffett.

This week, the national tour of his semi-autobiographical musical Escape to Margaritaville dropped anchor at National Theatre last night for a one-week engagement.

The score features some 25 Buffett tunes, including some new songs written for the show as well as his most famous hits from “Fins” to “Volcano” to “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

With a book by TV writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley and music and lyrics by Buffett himself, the show is named after Buffett’s 1977 hit “Margaritaville.”

Like the boat that brings boozy tourists to and from the fictional Margaritaville Hotel and Bar where the action is set, this show is big, rollicking, and has sprung a few leaks.

Shelly Lynn Walsh as Tammy, Peter Michael Jordan as Brick, Chris Clark as Tully, Sarah Hinrichsen as
Rachel in Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Escape to Margaritaville.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The story centers on Tully (Chris Clark as Don Giovanni in flip flops), a part-time guitar singer and full-time seducer of vacationing women, and his romantic pursuit of an uptight, career-minded volcanologist named Rachel (Sarah Hinrichsen).

Like the hero of Escape to Margaritaville, Buffett started out playing for drinks at the Chart Room Bar in Key West’s Pier House Motel.

Tully’s motto is all play and no work. Rachel can’t wait to check her work email the moment she arrives on the island. They have no chemistry, not even when Tully is serenading her with Buffett’s most gentle ballad, “Come Monday,” or when the show sends them to bed together.

I kept waiting for Rachel to channel Dot from Sunday in the Park with George and sing “We Do Not Belong Together.”

The leads’ lack of chemistry is unaided by the clichés and insipid one-liners in the show’s book. “I’m going to cheat,” pronounces Rachel’s best friend and fellow vacationer Tammy (Shelly Lynn Walsh), and “not just on my diet!”

Escape to Margaritaville first set sail at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2017.

The show also played in New Orleans, Houston, and Chicago before it premiered on Broadway in February 2018.

“When the writers came along, it was very important that they were part of that group of people who were basically Parrotheads [Jimmy Buffett fans],” Buffett told WTOP. “It was important that the music was a part of their lives and it wasn’t just a writing assignment. Authenticity was absolutely important. They knew the songs enough to stitch together a story.”

In retrospect, it might have been better if the writers hadn’t been so devoted to the material.

Perhaps then they could have avoided the overly literal takes on Buffett’s songs.

In “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” for example, one character gorges on an actual cheeseburger on stage. In “Margaritaville,” another character munches on sponge cake while another searches for a lost shaker of salt.

The writers don’t give Buffett’s songs enough credit. They’re rich, self-contained stories (especially “He Went to Paris,” which is the source of the show’s one, true emotional revelation), worth exploring as metaphors. Or perhaps the writers don’t give the audience enough credit.

There is one truly funny, self-aware line, delivered courtesy of Ted (DeVon Buchanan), the Black musical agent who discovers Tully playing in a bar: “Acoustic guitar, songs about the beach, Hush Puppy shoes … White people love that kinda shit.”

The show contains other pleasures, most notably Walt Spangler’s gloriously kitschy bamboo tiki bar, evoking the old Hawaii Kai Restaurant in Midtown, and Kelly Devine’s inventive choreography.

The National Theatre audience took special delight in Devine’s impressionistic take on a scuba lesson. The two leads, suspended from wires, “dive” through a sea of cerulean silk banners held up by members of the chorus.

The orchestra, led by Andrew David Sotomayor who pulls double duty on keyboard, brings Buffett’s songbook to life without ever upstaging the actors. Note to every Broadway pit: This is how you use an orchestra to complement, not compete with, the drama on stage.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the supporting leads, who are so compelling that one almost wishes the show were about them. Peter Michael Jordan (Brick, the bartender ) possesses a clear, sweet tenor and a disposition to match. His love interest, Tammy (Walsh), is the show’s strongest singer and a natural comedienne. Best of all, their chemistry is real. They belong together, as do J.D. (Patrick Cogan) and Marley (Rachel Lyn Fobbs) – the island’s pilot and hotelier, respectively.  

Escape to Margaritaville is a license to chill for a city of Type A people who live to work. I just wish it had more thoughts in its Parrothead.

Over the course of two and a half hours, you’ll sing along to familiar tunes, toss beach balls in the air, and have a few laughs.

But come Monday, you’ll have forgotten every word.

Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville plays through October 13, 2019, at the National Theater, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-514-3849 or go online.

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