‘ Es­cape’ to Broad­way

Jimmy Buf­fett mu­si­cal stops in Chicago on its way to New York

Chicago Sun-Times - - SUN-TIME AGENDA - Email: Hweiss@sun­times.com Twit­ter:@ HedyWeis­sCritic HEDY WEISS SUN- TIMES THE­ATER CRITIC

El­ton John, Paul Si­mon, Bono, Cindy Lau­per and Sting: At one time or an­other all these im­mensely suc­cess­ful pop stars have suc­cumbed to the ir­re­sistible siren song of the Broad­way mu­si­cal, with some find­ing greater suc­cess than oth­ers.

Now, Jimmy Buf­fett , the man with the Par­rot­head fol­low­ing that dreams of a laid back ex­is­tence and a wardrobe of floral shirts, straw hats and flip- flops, is mak­ing his sec­ond go at the prize with “Es­cape to Margaritaville,” a mu­si­cal that in­cor­po­rates and ex­pands upon his song­book. The show, with a book by tele­vi­sion vet­er­ans Greg Gar­cia and Mike O’Mal­ley, di­rec­tion by Christo­pher Ash­ley ( re­cip­i­ent of the 2017 Tony Award for his work on “Come From Away”), and chore­og­ra­phy by Kelly Devine, opened in May at the La Jolla Play­house. It has been on tour in the months since, and will ar­rive for a three- week “pre- Broad­way” en­gage­ment at the Ori­en­tal The­atre on Nov. 9, with a New York open­ing set for the Mar­quis The­atre on Feb. 16, 2018.

“Margaritaville” spins the story of Tully, who works as a singer/ gui­tar player and bar­tender at a band­stand near the Margaritaville Ho­tel on some Caribbean is­land where each week a cruise ship de­posits yet an­other flock of tourists. Among the crowd is at least one girl Tully ( played by Paul Alexan­der Nolan) can charm un­til she boards the boat again about a week later — leav­ing him free of any com­mit­ment. But then, much to Tully’s sur­prise, that pat- tern is dis­rupted. The girl who grabs his heart is Rachel ( Ali­son Luff ), a pas­sion­ate en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and worka­holic from Cincin­nati who has come to the is­land for her friend Tammy’s bach­e­lorette party, and noth­ing more. Things are about to change.

Buf­fett, the mas­ter “es­capist” who, at the age of 70 is fit, trim and ad­mit­tedly still driven ( and ca­pa­ble of draw­ing a crowd of more than 40,000 fans to his arena con­certs, as he did this past sum­mer at Wrigley Field), is not quite the same man you might en­vi­sion loung­ing in a ham­mock and sip­ping a salt- rimmed drink. De­spite the fact that for decades his well­cul­ti­vated, low- key vibe has been an as­pi­ra­tional model for many, he is a de­cep­tively Type- A guy.

An easy charmer — un­pre­ten­tious, good- hu­mored and talk­a­tive — Buf­fett is buoyed by the fact that his fans in­clude both nos­tal­gic Baby Boomers and a whole new younger gen­er­a­tion. But do not be de­ceived by the man whose hit songs over the course of five decades in­clude “Margaritaville,” “Cheese­burger in Par­adise,” “Vol­cano,” “Come Mon­day,” and “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Je­sus.”

Buf­fett, who calls Sag Har­bor, Long Is­land, home these days, laughs know­ingly when it is sug­gested that in many ways he has far more in com­mon with the char­ac­ter of Rachel than Tully. For in ad­di­tion to a busy con­cert tour­ing sched­ule that takes him to Europe and beyond, he has long been a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, with chains of restau­rants keyed to his song’s themes, li­censed prod­ucts for ev­ery­thing from tequila to chips and gua­camole, a beer deal with An­heuser- Busch, a casino- ho­tel in At­lantic City, and a $ 1 bil­lion re­tire­ment vil­lage in Day­tona Beach, Florida, now in the works. He also is in­volved in many char­i­ta­ble ef­forts, sup­port­ing eco­log­i­cal and marine lab­o­ra­tory projects and more re­cently rais­ing money for hur­ri­cane re­lief. But it is Broad­way that calls to him. “My love of mu­si­cal the­ater dates back far longer than my in­ter­est in the mu­sic I am known for,” said Buf­fett, dur­ing a chat in Chicago. “I grew up in Mo­bile, Alabama, where my work­ing mother, who had three kids, per­formed as part of the Mo­bile The­atre Guild, and she would drag me along to play chil­dren’s roles — like the lit­tle French- Poly­ne­sian boy in ‘ South Pa­cific’ — and I kind of liked it. She also took me to see the road shows that came through town. I learned ev­ery­thing I know from Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein — the way those songs go into your heart, the way the lyrics are like po­etry but al­ways driv­ing the story and sound­ing authen­tic to the char­ac­ters. I was a child of the tele­vi­sion age, but I loved the live en­ter­tain­ment form.”

“I still re­mem­ber the first time I saw ‘ The Who’s Tommy’ on Broad­way, and the orig­i­nal ‘ Evita’ with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,” said Buf­fett. “And I be­gan won­der­ing if I could make a mu­si­cal out of my own mu­sic, al­though I knew the chal­lenge of do­ing it would be to be true to my au­di­ence as well as to con­nect to a new one.”

Buf­fett’s first ( if un­suc­cess­ful ) at­tempt at a Broad­way mu­si­cal was two decades ago when he col­lab­o­rated with Herman Wouk ( fa­bled au­thor of “The Caine Mutiny”), to cre­ate a mu­si­cal based on Wouk’s book, “Don’t Stop the Car­ni­val.” A par­adise- turns- into- hell com­edy about a man es­cap­ing to the Caribbean to salve a midlife cri­sis, it played for six weeks in Mi­ami and closed, but Buf­fett turned it into an al­bum.

“The daunt­ing task for Greg [ Gar­cia] and me was to find a story that could spin around Jimmy’s huge cat­a­log from the 1960s un­til now,” said co- writer Mike O’Mal­ley. “Jimmy has such an amaz­ing abil­ity to tap into what Amer­i­cans re­ally care about — re­la­tion­ships, fam­ily, friends — so we based our story around the clues we found in his songs. Some of his songs give you the li­cense to chill out, but oth­ers are look­ing back on the night be­fore chaos. There is quite a dif­fer­ence be­tween a song like ‘ Come Mon­day’ and ‘ Cheese­burger in Par­adise,’ and the songs on the ‘ Co­conut Tele­graph’ al­bum.”

For “Margaritaville” Buf­fett said he wanted the band to sound like a bar band, “mim­ick­ing the in­stru­men­ta­tion of my own Co­ral Reefer Band, with most of the mu­si­cians placed on the stage and just a few in the pit.” The show also will fea­ture some no­tably zany mo­ments in­clud­ing fly­ing scuba divers and a beach ball spec­tac­u­lar. A nice dis­trac­tion from an ap­proach­ing Chicago win­ter.

| MATTHEW MUR­PHY

Paul Alexan­der Nolan plays Tully and Ali­son Luff is Rachel in the Jimmy Buf­fett mu­si­cal, “Es­cape to Margaritaville.”

ASH­LEE REZIN/ SUN- TIMES

Jimmy Buf­fett

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