‘ Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville’ takes too much lat­i­tude

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - News - BY CHRIS JONES

“Work is a dirty word out here,” says the charm­ing, gui­tarstrum­ming, Jimmy Buf­fettesque cen­tral fig­ure of the new mu­si­cal “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville,” a “Mamma Mia!” for Par­rot­heads. This se­duc­tive but com­mit­ment- pho­bic dude is try­ing to in­still some chill into an up­tight en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist who just ar­rived in the is­lands to col­lect min­eral- rich soil, but weirdly finds her­self in a bar where a flam­ing vol­cano means a frozen con­coc­tion of rum, brandy and pineap­ple juice. “If you say it again,” he ad­mon­ishes the wo­man, “we’ll have to wash your mouth out with te­quila.”

This set- up by the writ­ers Greg Gar­cia and Mike O’Mal­ley rouses both tourists and is­landers into a re­frain:“Work! Work! Work!”

If you find one of those syl­la­bles also es­cap­ing from your own throat, ac­com­pa­nied by a buzz- seek­ing dry­ness of mouth, or if at least some sym­pa­tico laugh­ter emerges, you’ve found your beach. If not? Well, it’s just a night, not aw­hole cruise.

If, like me, you con­sider Jimmy Buf­fett one of the nar­ra­tive mu­si­cal gi­ants of his era and an in­clu­sive, pop­ulist ge­niuswho blended rock, pop, coun­try and reg­gae with his roots in protest folk mu­sic, and whose unique and mas­sively in­flu­en­tial song­book lies at the com­plex in­ter­sec­tion of re­leased sex­ual re­pres­sion, im­pe­cu­nity and pro­found ex­is­ten­tial angst, then you’ll likely la­ment the mu­si­cal’s seem­ing lack of in­ter­est in any of that.

With an on- the- nose stage set from Walt Span­gler, “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville” in­cludes at least 27 of the songs Buf­fett made fa­mous ( some in a predictable con­text, some, thank­fully, not) and has a cast stocked with very ca­pa­ble singers. But it is rooted in, and ul­ti­mately bogged down by, its con­cep­tion of Buf­fett’s hakuna matata lifestyle brand: tiki bars in the lobby, sim­ple on­stage story of ro­man­tic op­po­sites find­ing mid­dle ground while their bestie comic friends snag the laughs, beach balls bounc­ing, Hawai­ian shirts flounc­ing. You know. All that. Which only takes you so far.

As far as I could see at the Nov. 14 pre- Broad­way open­ing in Chicago, no char­ac­ter even ac­knowl­edged the awk­wardly placed on- stage mu­si­cians, let alone col­lab­o­rated emo­tion­ally with them. That’s com­mer­cially un­der­stand­able — Mar­gar­i­taville also is an in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized leisure brand, with restau­rants and casi­nos — but it’s far re­moved fromBuf­fett and his beloved Coral Reefer Band in con­cert. The bal­ance of the showis, at this junc­ture, tipped too far in fa­vor of flip flops, pop tops, sit- com sce­nar­ios and the booze in the blender, and not enough in ser­vice of the “Come Mon­day” blues and the mu­si­cal com­plex­ity of this reper­toire. Verac­ity and par­ty­ing are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive qual­i­ties; there is no need for the show to run so far fromthe former to give peo­ple a good time.

Tellingly, the best mo­ment of the showis the­counter- in­tu­itive per­for­mance of the ti­tle song, su­perbly sung by Paul Alexan­der Nolan’s Tully as a gen­uine la­ment, as the tourist Rachel ( Ali­son Luff) who has wo­ken him from his lethargy ex­its stage left ( she’ll be back!). It’s the most self- aware mo­ment of a showthat needs more bal­lads. It’s not that there is a lack of mu­sic; there is a lack of at­ten­tion to the rich­ness of Buf­fett song­book.

Gar­cia and O’Mal­ley’s script is penned with ef­fi­cacy. In the main ro­man­tic plot, Tully has to grow up, Rachel of Cincin­nati has to chill out. In the sub­plot, Tully’s goofy is­land side­kick Brick ( Eric Petersen) gets it on with Rachel’s goofy Ohio side­kick Tammy ( Lisa Howard) and saves her from a mar­riage to a jerk. Col­or­ful char­ac­ters like the wacky old pi­rate J. D. ( Don Sparks) in­habit this tourist- bait bar, run by an is­land char­ac­ter named Mar­ley ( Rema Webb), giv­ing the writ­ers three di­verse cou­ples to cou­ple and al­low­ing the show ( to its credit) to cel­e­brate se­nior sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian sex, as any good Buf­fett mu­si­cal surely should.

At times, there is real comic artistry from di­rec­tor Christopher Ash­ley ( he shows us Rachel and Tammy head fromCincy to this non­spe­cific trop­i­cal is­land via plane, boat and heaven knows what other con­veyance, all in the course of the Buf­fett play- along clas­sic, “Fins,” which be­come the airline safety demo, which is very funny. This is not the only ex­am­ple of Ash­ley’s skill.

There are nu­mer­ous clever Easter eggs hid­den in the nar­ra­tive: a lost shaker of salt, the mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the name “Je­sus,” a crav­ing for cheese­burg­ers, here munched in a de­layed par­adise. And­when the showgets a tad raunchy, as in the song “Why Don’tWe Get Drunk,” the en­ter­prise is shrewdly pro­tected from the crass. In that case, the au­di­ence is coaxed into singing the last word of the line, a cool idea, and is a way to keep things very much PG- 13.

At other mo­ments, you won­der what the show was think­ing. At one point, a group of zom­bie in­sur­ance sales­men, ap­par­ently vic­tims of an erupted vol­cano and Brick’s soz­zled imag­i­na­tion, showup and per­forma dance num­ber, chore­ographed by Kelly Devine. Ac­tu­ally, they do a cou­ple. Th­e­seweird, ashgray, toe- tap­pin’ Willy Lo­mans don’t work at all. I’d nix ’ em right now and use the time where the book is strong­est: when it is deal­ing with the tra­vails of or­di­nary Mid­west­ern­ers try­ing to find a lit­tle sun­shine for their lives. Howard’s Tammy and Petersen’s Brick are huge as­sets and un­der­used. And Nolan, one of the great Broad­way rock singers, doesn’t get to show us what he can do enough with his voice. Nor doesWebb’s Mar­ley. De­spite her name.

The book isn’t inane or con­de­scend­ing, but it needs a ruth­less sweep for verac­ity. An em­blem­atic ex­am­ple and one of many: Rachel, who is look­ing for fund­ing, doesn’t need to keep say­ing, “that ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist who might fund me just called.” Once is enough. We get the plot. Surely, the man has a name.

Other is­sues in­clude some weird plot­ting in Act 2— an air­borne stut­ter on the way to res­o­lu­tion that causes the en­ergy to sag.

Buf­fett’s fan base is huge, and I doubt any­one in­volved here thinks this off- to- Broad­way show ever will be com­mand­ing 800 bucks a ticket, re­ceiv­ing love let­ters in The New Yorker or clean­ing up at the Tonys. It will be tempt­ing to ig­nore the theater snobs, breathe in, breathe out and please the par­ty­ing sec­tion of the fan base and make an hon­est buck. Fair enough. Job done, mostly. Royal Caribbean is al­ready sali­vat­ing. I was asked on the way out of the theater Wed­nes­day ( by real peo­ple) if I liked the show more times than ever be­fore inmy ca­reer. The faces all were smil­ing. The sub­text was that we had a great time and we think you should like it too. You pre­ten­tious dude, you.

But I say Buf­fet tis im­por­tant at this Amer­i­can mo­ment—for this man and his decades of work rep­re­sent a shared con­ver­sa­tion and an ad­vo­cacy of tol­er­ance, com­pas­sion and per­sonal hon­esty. Gar­cia and O’Mal­ley know how to en­ter­tain peo­ple who rarely ven­ture to the theater, and there is great in­sti­tu­tional and so­ci­etal value in that en­deavor. Those folks de­serve to be over- served. With mu­si­cal and chore­o­graphic com­plex­ity aswell as one- lin­ers.

As they say in “Mamma Mia!” — which pro­vided the struc­ture to em­u­late, trop­i­cal is­land and all, and made hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars: “Without a song or a dance, what are we?”

So why not do more work and hold the te­quila for awhile?

Jimmy Buf­fett sur­prises the­ater­go­ers on Nov. 15 dur­ing the cur­tain call for “Es­cape to Mar­gar­i­taville” at the Ori­en­tal Theatre.

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