Jimmy Buffett's Broadway-bound 'Margaritaville' offers a perfect escape

 
 
Updated 11/16/2017 2:22 PM
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  • Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), an island Romeo, finds love with mainland environmental scientist Rachel (Alison Luff) in "Escape to Margaritaville," a tropical tuner by Jimmy Buffett.

    Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), an island Romeo, finds love with mainland environmental scientist Rachel (Alison Luff) in "Escape to Margaritaville," a tropical tuner by Jimmy Buffett. Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

"Escape to Margaritaville" -- ★ ★ ★

If Jimmy Buffett fans have anything to say about it, his buoyant, Broadway-bound "Escape to Margaritaville" will run for years.

The enthusiastic response to Wednesday's opening from Buffett's "phlock" -- which is how his self-styled parrothead fans refer to themselves when two or more are gathered together -- suggests as much. With its breezy, bouncy score (featuring more than two dozen Buffett favorites plus a couple of new tunes); jokey, sitcom-style book (peppered with quips and inside Buffett references) by TV scribes Greg Garcia ("My Name is Earl") and Mike O'Malley ("Shameless"); and a near irresistible feel-good vibe, this tropical-themed, jukebox tuner has the necessary ingredients for an extended stay on the Great White Way.

Singer/songwriter Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), second from right, and bartender pal Brick (Eric Petersen) romance mainland tourists Rachel (Alison Luff), right, and Tammy (Lisa Howard) in the Broadway-bound "Escape to Margaritaville."
Singer/songwriter Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), second from right, and bartender pal Brick (Eric Petersen) romance mainland tourists Rachel (Alison Luff), right, and Tammy (Lisa Howard) in the Broadway-bound "Escape to Margaritaville." - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

A sunny confection with a wafer-thin plot, sketchily drawn characters and a predictable conclusion that races headlong into happily-ever-after, "Escape to Margaritaville" is pure escapism. Considering the chill wind blowing across the nation -- literally and metaphorically -- the timing is perfect.

Framed within set designer Walt Spangler's seashell, the action unfolds at the Margaritaville Hotel, a middling resort on an unnamed island where mainland transplant turned tropical troubadour Tully (an affable, charming Paul Alexander Nolan) sings with a local band. In his spare time, the island Romeo romances female tourists. He sets his sights on Rachel (Alison Luff, a lovely singer), an environmental scientist on vacation with her best friend Tammy (Lisa Howard, a powerhouse), a bride-to-be whose boorish fiance has her on a strict pre-wedding diet.

The buoyant, Broadway-bound "Escape to Margaritaville" runs through Dec. 2 at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
The buoyant, Broadway-bound "Escape to Margaritaville" runs through Dec. 2 at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

After Rachel mentions she's eager to collect soil samples from the island volcano for her research into alternative energy sources, Tully offers himself and his sweet, slightly dim pal Brick (Eric Petersen, a likable sidekick), as guides. While romance blossoms between Tully and Rachel, Tammy tries to resist her growing attraction to Brick. Romance is also in the air for the island's resident codger J.D. (Don Sparks), who puts the moves on Marley (Rema Webb), Margaritaville's wry, wary owner.

Nolan is quite good. He grounds Tully, giving the character dimension that keeps him from becoming a caricature. Nolan and Luff have real chemistry and they're fine singers, whose unvarnished versions of "Son of a Son of a Sailor" (Nolan) and "It's My Job"(Luff) are among the show's sweetest moments.

Clearly, director Christopher Ashley (2017's Tony Award winner for "Come From Away") understands Buffett's oeuvre. His brisk direction and peppy tone perfectly suits the cheery score, which -- like Buffett's concerts -- features the head parrothead's greatest hits.

Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) goes from singing at an island resort to the top of the pop charts in Jimmy Buffett's Broadway-bound tuner "Escape to Margaritaville."
Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) goes from singing at an island resort to the top of the pop charts in Jimmy Buffett's Broadway-bound tuner "Escape to Margaritaville." - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

But not every number works. Some felt contrived, as if they were shoehorned into the show. Too often, the dialogue felt set up, like the patter performers use in concert to introduce the next song. A recurring bit involving Brick's hallucination of zombie insurance salespeople seemed like an excuse to include a glittering tap number.

That said, "Escape to Margaritaville" included the crowd pleasers "Why Don't We Get Drunk," "One Particular Harbor" (during which the audience tossed beach balls) and the titular tune (which got a post-finale reprise Wednesday courtesy of Buffett himself). But the show's finest, most authentic moment featured the second act's heartfelt "He Went to Paris," in which J.D. shares a lifetime of memories with Tully and Brick.

It's Buffett at his best: as a storyteller recounting the lives of ordinary folks to the delight of his endlessly exuberant fans.

• • •

Location: The Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com or escapetomargaritavillemusical.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 2. Also 2 p.m. Nov. 22 and 29. No show Nov. 23. No 7:30 p.m. show Nov. 26

Running time: About 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission

Tickets: $35-$115

Parking: Paid lots nearby

Rating: For older teens and adults; includes sexual references (among them the names of tropical drinks named for sex acts)

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