Jimmy Buffett’s catchy songs about kicking back from the daily grind to relax with some nice drinks, eats, and weed — and hopefully a side order of sex — are celebrations of easygoing pleasure. So it’s a bummer to report that Escape to Margaritaville, a new jukebox musical devised from Buffett’s feel-good song catalog, turns out to be something of a snooze on Broadway.
There are three primary ways to repackage a pop songwriter’s inventory into a Broadway show. Perhaps the most direct approach is to key the songs into a biographical account, such as Beautiful, the slick and satisfying Carole King saga. The next mode is to arrange the numbers into a revue format of medleys, star turns, and dance interludes, like the glittering Sophisticated Ladies tribute to Duke Ellington. And then there is concocting a fictional storyline that reflects the spirit of the material, of which the greatest hit is the ABBA-licious songfest Mamma Mia. This last category is the tricky route that writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley have taken to contrive Escape to Margaritaville.
Let’s check into the Margaritaville hotel and bar, a shabby resort on a Caribbean island where it’s always five o’clock. Abetting the party-hearty crowd of tourists and locals is Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), an affable beach bum slash wanna-be songwriter employed by the joint to charm the customers. Tully encounters Rachel (Alison Luff), an uptight environmental scientist taking a brief vacay with her bestie, Tammy (Lisa Howard). Contrary to his usual woo ’em and loose ’em practice with the ladies, Tully soon totally falls for Rachel, who relaxes from her workaholic-ism to reciprocate.
Simultaneously, touring around the island, Brick (Eric Petersen), Tully’s goofy bartender bud, strikes mutual sparks with Tammy, who harbors second thoughts about marrying a jerk (Ian Michael Stuart) back home in snowy Cincinnati. Meanwhile, over at the hotel Margaritaville, where the plat du jour seems to be sponge cake, one end of the bar is propped up by J.D. (Don Sparks), a sporty old geezer forever seeking his lost shaker of salt.
Then the volcano erupts.
There is a second act, but you don’t really need to know about that, do you? In all, some 26 of Buffett’s familiar and otherwise songs are mixed into this sugary tropical cocktail of a show, which is shaken — if not successfully stirred — into decent Broadway shape by director Christopher Ashley, who did wonders by Come From Away. Ashley can’t forge a similar miracle at the Marquis Theater, but at least he delivers a thoroughly professional entertainment. Set designer Walt Spangler frames the stage with flanking palm trees and tiki huts, where the story’s dopey rom-com doings are prettily colored by Howell Binkley’s lighting and a lively little onstage band bangs out the tunes with requisite guitar strummings and marimba shimmerings. Still, pleasant as these songs may be to hear again, those leisurely chill-and-swill rhythms that they mostly possess are not conducive to propelling a Broadway musical.
Fist-pumping and hip-swiveling characterize the choreography that is devised by Kelly Devine and accordingly rendered with good-natured gusto by the ensemble. The leading players make a congenial foursome, who lend fine voices to the songs and a playful quality to their characters. While their boy-girl doings are not especially diverting, the performers’ upbeat presence goes a long way to make the production a passable waste of time. If this cheeseburger of a jukebox musical scarcely stacks up as paradise to Broadway regulars, the show might appeal to the sort of visitors who, for the same reason, like to eat at the McDonald’s in Times Square: Simply because it offers something they already know.