In 2017, I escorted a busload of folks to Chicago for the pre-Broadway run of “Escape to Margaritaville,” the musical built from a foundation – and the attitude – of Jimmy Buffett’s song catalog. We had a good time, but I had a clear feeling that the show would ultimately be more comfortable in regional theaters (and maybe Branson, Atlantic City, or Vegas) than on Broadway.
As I suspected, the show didn’t find bliss in New York, where it ran for 29 previews and 124 performances in 2018. (Trivia fact: At the time, it was one of two Broadway musicals whose plots involved erupting volcanos). When I saw that it was on the Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre lineup, I was curious if the second part of my expectation would prove true.
– Yes, “Escape to Margaritaville” is a jukebox musical built on a popular song stack, but lyrics have been tweaked and songs added to be more plot and character specific. Not that there’s a whole lot of plot or character.
– It concerns Tully (Kyle Southern), a chill musician at an island resort, who has a change in attitude when Rachel (Amanda Tong), an uptight scientist, has a change in latitude by visiting the island. You know where this is going. There’s also Tully’s goofy bartender pal Brick (Brett Mutter) and Rachel’s buddy Tammy (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell), who is taking a break before getting married to a jerk back home. You know where this is going. And there’s J.D. (Jeff Stockberger), who you just know will eventually be searching for his lost shaker of salt.
– It’s a show that just wants to be fun. And it largely is. I remember being pissed off at some of the New York theater journalists who treated the show like it was a personal assault on them. Come on, folks. Nobody expects a Sondheim show here. I wasn’t even expecting it to rise to the level of “Mamma Mia!” But the songs have fans for a reason, the dumb jokes often land, and the vacation atmosphere prevails.
– My memory of the pre-Broadway production was of a more laid back Tully. Southern’s take on the character doesn’t seem as hammock-centric. And Tong’s Rachel never strays far from the familiar. But both are strong singers and I found myself buying their attraction and the way that attraction expands both of their horizons. I rooted for them to find happiness. That’s vital to a show like this.
– Speaking of attraction, “Escape to Margaritaville” is probably the most sex-positive show that’s been offered on the B&B stage since the last time they tackled “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” I thought some punches – or punchlines – might be pulled but the production presented the show as is, pious potential patrons be damned. (Nobody seemed to mind too much, even those who brought young kids to the show. Musicals with a smile will often dismantle such concerns.)
– Another reasons I chose this show for my first visit to Beef & Boards since the pandemic was because of Hannah Elizabeth Boswell, who was so alive and fun as Malvolio in Southbank Theatre Company’s musical “Twelfth Night” earlier this year. There’s less room for creative zaniness in “Margaritaville,” but she does demonstrate range. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for this talent.
– While the first act moves along at a brisk-yet-breezy-enough clip, the show starts to peter out once the Brick/Tammy subplot is resolved in the second act. The script is the script, but I hope the pacing picks up as the show heads toward its curtain call.
– Alas, the few obligatory beach balls dropped during those bows didn’t quite have their intended party effect. They were treated more like prizes thrown to the crowd rather than a keep-it-in-the-air game. Blame the B&B tables, perhaps. But the Hawaiian shirted wait staff certainly added to the festive atmosphere.
– Is “it “Escape to Margaritaville” great? Of course not. But there’s something to be said for a show that doesn’t aim for greatness. This one aims for amiability. It’s the student who is happy to get a B-minus or a C-plus on the exam. It’s a show that wants you to have an excuse to go to the theater with your brother-in-law who doesn’t go to theater. It’s the beachcomber happy to have a fun one-night fling that all parties know isn’t going to leave a lasting impression. It’s a song on the radio that you sing along to even though you didn’t know that you know it.
– And it’s a show with a heart, accented by a combination of chill and a touch of longing. And with some tweaks and tightening, it could be as nice a fit for Branson, Atlantic City, or Vegas as it is for Beef & Boards, where it runs through Oct. 2.