Jimmy Buffett’s “Escape to Margaritaville” is everything a Jimmy Buffett fan or even non-fan could hope for within the span of the few hours it takes place. With the laid-back artist’s greatest hits on display (about two dozen in total, including newer ones) on a Caribbean island, the musical keeps its lyrics-influenced narrative structure simple, evoking the right emotions without diving into too many gratuitous complexities. TV pros Greg Garcia and the recognizable Mike O’Malley have achieved what they sought after — not necessarily a universally critically acclaimed work, but one that gets the job done from an entertainment standpoint and is a guilty pleasure if nothing else.
For those who want to unwind and get on “island time,” the national tour of “Escape to Margaritaville” can now be experienced in Costa Mesa at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through February 9th before the tropical party moves to Los Angeles at the Dolby Theatre (February 18th through March 8th).
The general premise examines the evolution of a romance between two couples when they meet on a mysterious and vibrant island, specifically at the Margaritaville, a hotel and bar. All this gets going when two women from Cincinnati embark on their bachelorette getaway; they are Tammy, who is engaged to be married to her oppressive and ungentlemanly fiancé Chadd, and her best friend Rachel, a save-the-world environmental scientist who is trying to get funding for her alternative energy proposal.
The Margaritaville is owned by a vivacious Jamaican woman named Marley, the bar itself is run by its kind but dimwitted bartender, Brick, and much of the venue’s entertainment is provided by the resident playboy strummer and singer, Tully. The one-eyed 76-year-old J.D. — who has a penchant for salt, has buried treasure on the island, and a cryptic past — is also a staple of the establishment, as is the resident jack-of-all-trades Jamal, who doesn’t let a broken arm spoil his jovial attitude.
However, just as their respective love interests, Brick and Tully, fall for them, Tammy and Rachel leave to go back to their home state. Subsequently, the eruption of the island’s volcano expedites the next series of events, culminating with a revelatory and exultant finale that, while predictable in many ways, stays true and doesn’t cheat audiences by veering off its course. To this end, director Amy Anders Corcoran runs a tight ship, maximizing the impact of Buffett’s songs and the romantic interplay among its principals.
Moreover, Walt Spangler’s sets visually pop with island foliage, parrots, fancy beverages, and a straw canopy; costume designer Paul Tazewell’s appropriately garish beachwear is perfect for the occasion; and the lighting team of Howell Binkley and Amanda Zieve direct warm and optimistic colors upon its aglow cast. In fact, the performers — helped by the behind-the-scenes crew — are so effective at being in “vacation mode” from the start that it’s easy to relax and live vicariously through them on their trip. An amazing live band on stage, led by music director and keyboardist Andrew David Sotomayor, makes it easier to stay in the moment, as does Kelly Devine’s festive choreography which involves props that fit the beachy theme.
The music is catchy, if not undemanding like its plot. The lyrics are rudimentary, but that’s part of the appeal, and the characters inspired by them are relatable. Tunes like “Fins,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” (which becomes an audience sing-along), “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and “Grapefruit—Juicy Fruit” are meant to gratifyingly evoke applause from an audience, as opposed to getting them to think about abstract allusions to the human condition. This is not that kind of show, and that’s perfectly okay; everything has its purpose, and this is intended not to be a highly intellectual piece, but rather touch on our primal and social natures. The skilled cast communicates this point effectively.
Going into the auditorium with this “License to Chill” mindset is key to the laughter and enjoyment that is to be had. As the leads, Tully and Rachel, performers Chris Clark, a superb crooner, and Sarah Hinrichsen, an excellent vocalist in her own right, sizzle and are sweet as a couple. The pair’s genuineness particularly shows when Clark’s character teaches his onstage love interest how to strum a guitar in “Three Chords,” and when they ultimately confide feelings for one another in “Come Monday.” The duo is versatile as well, and in a memorable bit, go scuba diving as the ensemble flutters a long blue chiffon cloth right under them to simulate the amusing, in-the-ocean visual.
Whereas Clark and Hinrichsen appropriately play it straight, Shelly Lynn Walsh’s Tammy and Peter Michael Jordan’s Brick have a more pronounced quirkiness to them (and a love of puns) that is better conducive to comedy. Besides the previously mentioned “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” which drolly and rapturously references Tammy’s insatiable hankering for a bun, meat, and cheese — in opposition to Noah Bridgestock’s villainous Chadd, who dictates Tammy’s diet before their wedding — “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About” is also noteworthy. It is sweet and funny in underscoring Tammy and Brick’s shared realization about how they’ve basically failed as underachieving adults. Walsh, who additionally has a sonorous voice, and Jordan, whose persona gets to revel in his own big tap number, are both terrific at being affable if not neurotic.
Lastly, Rachel Lyn Fobbs has an undeniable spark about her as the strong-willed but also gossipy Marley; the dynamic Patrick Cogan is at once hilarious as a mischievous rabble-rouser before taking a dramatic turn that unveils why he came to be the way he is; and Matthew James Sherrod’s Jamal adds to the personability quotient of this musical with “Volcano.” This all makes for an engaging show — first and foremost because its characters are real, grounded, and fallible.
Overall, while it doesn’t break any new musical ground, “Escape to Margaritaville” offers a Jimmy Buffett-jukebox sojourn replete with volleyed beach balls. Here, a tropical island isn’t just where people go to have a great time and be untethered by life’s travails, it also marks a turning point where questions and doubts about the past and future achieve a certain clarity under the re-energizing sun rays of this escape. Mostly likeable characters looking for something greater and more fulfilling, who may have otherwise never had the opportunity, find comfort in each other, assisted by the colorful sights and liveliness of the Caribbean.
For more information about Jimmy Buffett’s “Escape to Margaritaville” at the Segerstrom Center, please visit:
For details on the upcoming run at the Dolby Theatre, visit:
And for tour dates, go to the musical’s official page: