Paul Alexander Nolan in "Escape to Margaritaville." Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Escape to Margaritaville, the world-premiere musical that kicks off La Jolla Playhouse’s season, is a Parrothead’s dream: a tropical island setting, beautiful people in aloha shirts and skimpy beachwear, and the carefree, sun-splashed songs of Jimmy Buffett. Oh, and a thatched-roof bar on stage that never seems to close.
For casual or non-Buffett fans, Escape to Margaritaville is a good-humored tale with little more at stake than whether a musical “beach bum” named Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan, sounding when he speaks like a NASCAR driver) will win the heart of a comely workaholic from Cincinnati named Rachel (Alison Luff). The authors of the musical’s book, Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, do apply some narrative layers, like a volcano that blows its top and Tully’s becoming a big recording star in the States, but really what we care about is whether the young lovers pair up by show’s end. Interestingly, the island romance between Rachel’s body-conscious but less-uptight girlfriend Tammy (Lisa Howard) and an insecure bartender (Charlie Pollock) is more fun than that of the leads.
The charm of Escape to Margaritaville, directed by Christopher Ashley, is the ingenuity in which Buffett songs, especially the title tune, are woven into the story and the characters’ fates. Also to its credit are the surreal presence of some ash-covered dancing zombies, a couple of inspired aerial effects (ever try snorkeling in midair?) and wonderful sets by Walt Spangler that will make you long for an island vacation yourself.
Bottom line, this is a musical showcase for Buffett’s goodtime canon, and nothing that happens on stage connects more than the songs so beloved by his faithful over the years, performed on stage principally by the likable Nolan and a spirited band conducted by Christopher Jahnke. On opening night, Buffett himself, barefooted and brandishing his guitar, came on stage to lead the cast and audience in a rousing “Margaritaville.” Chill, Parrotheads: He won’t be doing so throughout the show’s run. Next stop for “Escape,” by the way, is New Orleans, a place where they already have partying down to a tee. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/31/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat