Times change. When Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” came out in 1977, the singer couldn’t find his salt shaker for said beverage. One might have thought, Poor dude, it won’t be the same. Today, the health-conscious would surely opine, “Good thing, sodium’s vile.”
Fans of Buffett come to the La Jolla Playhouse wearing their allegiance: short-sleeve floral shirts, baseball caps, or felt fedoras, some even in shorts and faded flip-flops. For them the world premiere of Escape to Margaritaville, based on Buffett’s songs, is a pilgrimage to a shrine. And they do get to hear 20-plus performed with panache. But the story, which unfolds like an old beach movie — Gidget Goes Caribbean? — doesn’t do the music justice.
When you create a musical — this is probably a chicken/egg thing — what comes first, the songs or the story? Rodgers and Hammerstein always began with a basic outline of what should go where. Then Rodgers composed the music and Hammerstein the lyrics, usually in that order, and they were ever-ready to scrap anything that didn’t fit.
Margaritaville looks to be the other way around. Songs first. Take “Margaritaville,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Volcano,” “Come Monday,” and “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus” — and fit them into some kind of story. Second problem: most have an eternal vacation ambience that conjures up snow-white sand, chaise lounges, tall umbrella drinks, and a marimba band wafting in on an ocean breeze.
The title song fits. If listened to closely, it isn’t a paean to “parrot-headed” — as Buffett’s fans call themselves — living. It’s a lament. The singer, named Tully in the musical (performed with superstar brio by Paul Alexander Nolan), made a mistake. A guitar player at a bandstand near the Margaritaville Hotel, he’s a serial lover. Every week, a new flock of tourists de-boats. Tully culls a woman from the herd. Seven days later he sends her off, cutting all ties. The slow first act explains why Tully is “wasting away.” As another song from the mid-’70s put it, he “fooled around and fell in love” — with Rachael (Alison Luff, excellent), an unlikely candidate. The workaholic came to celebrate her friend Tammy’s bachelorette party, not to frolic with a self-absorbed jigolo. Act One concludes with a moving version of “Margaritaville.” Tully’s broken many a heart. It’s karma time, kiddo.
Other songs appear like far-off islands the story must detour to instead of moving forward. “Volcano” fits, I guess, if you can find an active one in the Caribbean and give locals a Last Days of Pompeii moment. Even though blasted with rabid reds by lighting genius Howell Brinkley, the volcano’s no real threat (the musical has very few, in fact). There are still more songs to go, even some that kill the pace, mid-volcanic eruption, of what should be an extended chase (make that flee-) scene.
Because the story’s built around the songs, the scenes are set-ups for them and not for the unfolding tale of criss-crossing lovers. It’s like being at an airport where the tower grants wheels-up clearance to Piper Cubs but grounds jumbo jets.
The script does smash a few stereotypes, though. Free and easy Tully has a comeuppance of the heart. Also, one might assume that Rachel, an environment-crusading scientist (an endangered species of late) would not consent to a shallow fling. Not so. To Tully’s, and our, surprise, just before she returns to Cincinnati, Rachel slams the same door on Tully that he’s been slamming on his conquests.
Also, Rachel’s friend Tammy (talented, funny, Lisa Howard). She’s a large woman her draconian fiancé wants to shrink into a size more acceptable to his eye. He put her on a diet of carrot juice and sunflower seeds. When Tammy goes to the island for her bachelorette party, she should have a fling and a half. But doesn’t. Along the way she learns to be comfortable with who, and how, she is, aided by laid-back bartender-Brick’s (Charlie Pollock, a humble hoot) acceptance.
The script has some funny one-liners, and a few groaners. But what’s the deal with the dancing insurance salesperson zombies? The joke works the first time, a bit. But when they reappear the concept feels forced. Even Kelly Devine’s creative tap-choreography can’t shake the sense that the zombies are just a bizarre filler for an essentially traditional story.
Much better filler, and closer to the spirit of the music: flying scuba divers, Tammy’s sudden high jump, and an unforgettable ending, where multicolored beach balls bounce and cavort.
The production sports an all-star team of designers. Paul Tazewell’s island costumes come direct from the Jimmy Buffett collection, while his mainland attire is pure beer and chips, sofa-head grunge. On Walt Spangler’s set, dark green jungles and a volcano drift on and off with ease and beckon the spirit to tropical latitudes.
Christopher Ashley, current Tony Award nominee for Come From Away, shows once again that he can direct anything and can make a negligible script appear almost competent. His cast moves with speed and assurance, and all sing Buffett’s music like rockets ablaze. Other standouts: Rema Webb as Marley (a fitting name for the region), Andre Ward as Jamal (who, when given the chance, really cuts loose), and longtime San Diego favorite Don Sparks as J.D., a grounded, alcoholic pilot who lost his shaker of salt.
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Escape to Margaritaville, book by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, music and lyrics by Jimmy Buffett.
Directed by Christopher Ashley; cast: Peter Alexander Nolan, Alison Luff, Lisa Howard, Don Sparks, Rema Webb, Charlie Pollock, Andre Ward, Mike Millan, Alex Michael Stoll, Katie Banville, Hanz Enyeart, Keely Hutton, Justin Mortelliti, Sharone Sayegh, Justin Keats, Matt Allen, Samantha Farrow, Marjorie Failoni, Sara Andreas, Ian Paget; scenic design, Walt Spangler, costumes, Paul Tazewell, lighting, Howell Brinkley, sound, Brian Ronan, musical supervisor, Christopher Jahnke, choreographer, Kelly Devine, wigs and makeup, Leah J. Loukas.
Playing through July 9; Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; lajollaplayhouse.org