Jimmy Buf­fett es­capism

Yes, it’s silly, but so what? Go ahead and em­brace ‘Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville.’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES Mc­NULTY THE­ATER CRITIC charles.mc­nulty@la­times.com Twit­ter: @charlesm­c­nulty

High-spir­ited “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville” is dopey fun, says critic Charles Mc­Nulty.

LA JOLLA — “Li­cense to Chill,” the open­ing num­ber in “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville,” the new dopey-fun Broad­way-bound mu­si­cal that strings to­gether Jimmy Buf­fett’s re­laxed and randy songs, could serve as the show’s mis­sion state­ment.

Although I was stone cold sober, I am fairly cer­tain that al­co­hol could only have an im­prov­ing ef­fect on this kind of en­ter­tain­ment. Mar­gar­i­tas were be­ing served at La Jolla Play­house, where the show is hav­ing its world pre­miere, and the lines for re­fu­el­ing dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion seemed un­usu­ally rau­cous for a Sun­day mati­nee.

Re­gard­less of what any­one was drink­ing, the high spir­its were in­fec­tious. But let me come clean about some­thing: I am not the mu­si­cal’s tar­get au­di­ence. Be­fore see­ing the show, I couldn’t tell you the ti­tle of one Buf­fett song, though nat­u­rally when I heard “Mar­gar­i­taville,” the num­ber that closes the first act, I lip-synced along with the rest of the au­di­ence, the lyrics im­planted in my brain through cul­tural os­mo­sis.

Juke­box mu­si­cals, with few ex­cep­tions, de­press me. (If I had to pay for tick­ets, I’d see on av­er­age zero a year.) “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville” fol­lows the IKEA-fac­tory ex­am­ple of “Mamma Mia!” Buf­fett con­trib­uted a few new songs for the show, but the book by TV writ­ers Greg Gar­cia (“Yes, Dear,” “My Name Is Earl” and “Rais­ing Hope”) and Mike O’Mal­ley (“Sur­vivor’s Re­morse,” “Shame­less”) is a sit­com con­trap­tion de­signed to con­tain as many hits as pos­si­ble.

True to its ti­tle, “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville” is pure es­capism. These things are dif­fi­cult to quan­tify, but I’d imag­ine the the­ater­go­ing experience is equiv­a­lent to watch­ing four or five “Two and a Half Men” re­runs back to back.

Still, I have a sworn obli­ga­tion as a the­ater critic to give it to you straight: I had a good time. I’m not ex­actly proud of the fact. In fact, I’m won­der­ing if I’m get­ting soft in my mid­dle age. The show isn’t striv­ing for the so­phis­ti­cated sto­ry­telling of “Fun Home” or “Hamil­ton,” but if you want a silly di­ver­sion with mu­sic and lyrics that could get Fal­staff karaoke­ing, “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville” is just the ticket.

Re­call­ing the book is a bit like try­ing to re­assem­ble cot­ton candy. The ac­tion is largely set at an is­land re­sort that doesn’t live up to its brochure but man­ages to per­suade its guests to leave their cares be­hind. (Wal­ter Span­gler’s scenic de­sign con­jures just the right tack­yfes­tive am­bi­ence.)

Tully (Paul Alexan­der Nolan), the lounge singer and res­i­dent lothario, has a new fling with each weekly in­flux of fer­ry­ing tourists. He’s up­front about his wild­cat­ting. His am­bi­tion is to en­joy him­self while giv­ing plea­sure to others. Va­ca­tion fan­tasy is his re­al­ity, but life gets more com­pli­cated when he falls for a woman whose worka­holic per­son­al­ity is the op­po­site of his own.

Rachel (Ali­son Luff) has trav­eled to the is­land with her best friend, Tammy (Lisa Howard), who is about to get mar­ried to a creep who wants her to lose weight be­fore the wed­ding. While Tammy downs shots of tequila, Rachel is fran­ti­cally try­ing to get a wire­less sig­nal to see whether the ven­ture cap­i­tal came through for her project to de­velop an al­ter­na­tive en­ergy source from a potato.

A beauty with no time for ro­mance, Rachel is more in­ter­ested in sam­pling is­land soil than go­ing for a swim, never mind sleep­ing with the play­boy of the Mar­gar­i­taville Ho­tel and Bar staff. Tully, whose de­sire is in­ten­si­fied by Rachel’s re­sis­tance, of­fers to take her to the nearby vol­cano with his buddy Brick (Char­lie Pol­lock), a nice if none-too-bright bar­tender, who (spoiler alert!) doesn’t think Tammy needs to diet at all.

Chekhov’s dic­tum about a gun shown in the first act hav­ing to go off in the sec­ond ap­par­ently also ap­plies to vol­ca­noes in juke­box mu­si­cals. But it would be silly of me to test your pa­tience with the story, when I could be de­scrib­ing the spon­ta­neous sin­ga­long that breaks out when J.D. (a spir­ited Don Sparks), an old goat who’s al­ways putting the moves on no-non­sense ho­tel pro­pri­etor Mar­ley (Rema Webb), breaks into the Buf­fett an­them “Why Don’t We Get Drunk.” The au­di­ence was more than happy to sup­ply the rest of the slightly risqué lyric each time the song’s ti­tle ques­tion was raised.

Christo­pher Ash­ley, who just won a Tony Award for his di­rec­tion of “Come From Away,” knows how to keep the mu­si­cal trains run­ning on time. His pro­duc­tion might be the Pla­tonic ideal of a Las Ve­gas mu­si­cal: Broad­way show­man­ship for the tourist masses.

The sup­port­ing char­ac­ters are too car­toon­ish for my lik­ing, and the way the ho­tel work­ers flirt with racial stereo­types is cring­ingly ret­ro­grade. But the leads all have tex­tured in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

Broad­way and La Jolla Play­house vet­eran Nolan (“Bright Star,” “Je­sus Christ Su­per­star”) and Luff make a win­ning the­atri­cal pair. Their stage pres­ences and com­pelling singing bind them more than their story line. This is a tale of two per­form­ers mak­ing the most of their mu­si­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties.

As the side­kicks, Pol­lock and Howard have to wade through some hu­mil­i­at­ing shtick. Pol­lock’s slow-wit­ted Brick might be best de­scribed as the dullest can opener in the drawer. Howard’s Tammy, whose weight is­sues are an ob­ject of hu­mor and sym­pa­thy, has to con­tend with a mu­si­cal num­ber cen­tered on a tray of meat pat­ties. Both ac­tors main­tain their dig­nity by be­ing not only good sports but also gen­uine tal­ents.

The way lyrics in­spire gags and plot de­vices might strike knowl­edge­able Buf­fett fans as clever. But from a purely mu­si­cal the­ater sto­ry­telling stand­point, the in­cor­po­ra­tion of miss­ing salt­shak­ers (“Mar­gar­i­taville”) and stink­ing feet (“My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Je­sus”) is em­bar­rass­ing.

The big­ger quandary is: How can a happy end­ing that is com­pletely pre­pos­ter­ous leave you feel­ing up­beat?

“Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville” re­quires not just sus­pen­sion but ine­bri­a­tion of dis­be­lief. But the show’s se­cret, I sus­pect, lies in the song­writ­ing bril­liance of Buf­fett, whose mu­sic of­fers a hol­i­day from the rules and re­straints of ev­ery­day life.

In cel­e­brat­ing laid-back virtues, his songs re­mind that the road is hard for ev­ery­one and that “win­ners and losers … We’re all qual­i­fied, for a li­cense to chill.”

Pho­to­graphs by Matthew Mur­phy

ALI­SON LUFF and Paul Alexan­der Nolan are among the stars of the mu­si­cal.

J.D. (Don Sparks) ser­e­nades Mar­ley (Rema Webb) in the juke­box mu­si­cal based on Jimmy Buf­fett songs.

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