It’s not much of a stretch to think Jimmy Buffett’s songs might make a decent musical. They’re full of exotic locations, interesting people and funny situations. They inspire grown men and women to make their hands into shark fins and bat around beach balls indoors. Plus, as a songwriter, he’s a great storyteller on par with his old friend and “Railroad Lady” co-writer Jerry Jeff Walker.
Escape to Margaritaville, Buffett’s Broadway-bound musical warming up at the Hobby Center through Sunday, constructs a breezy romantic comedy out of his best-known songs and a few deeper cuts, 27 musical numbers in all. The book, co-written by My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia and actor/writer Mike O’Malley (Shameless, Survivor’s Remorse), draws some good laughs and not quite as many groans; the Viagra jokes are offset by a welcome ear for puns, including a few on Buffett’s name. Though crisply directed by Christopher Ashley, the plot tends to wander in and out of focus, but what’s a trip to a tropical island without a few detours? And aren’t we all here to just relax and have fun anyway?
Buffett’s alter ego here is Tully, front man of the Margaritaville Hotel house band on some unnamed Caribbean island, played with a little of Joel McHale’s brash likability by Paul Alexander Nolan. Tully enjoys shirking his chores as much as singing, casual affairs with tourists — who also make a handy chorus line for Rock of Ages veteran Kelly Devine’s dance numbers, including one truly surreal chorus line of Technicolor zombies — and chilling with his even more laid-back bartender best friend Brick (Eric Petersen). Enter the bachelorette party of bride-to-be Tammy (Ryann Redmond, subbing for Lisa Howard Wednesday) and maid of honor Rachel (Alison Luff), an uptight scientist hoping the Caribbean soil will help her realize her dream of turning potatoes into an alternative-energy source. Tully, as you might expect, has other ideas how she might spend her week on the island.
About as serious as Escape to Margaritaville gets is watching-her-weight Tammy’s jerk of a fiancee ordering her to spit out a cheeseburger at the rehearsal dinner. Not to worry; her budding attraction to Brick is telegraphed by the increasingly explicit drink specials on the chalkboard of the Margaritaville’s cabana bar. Oh, and there’s a volcano, because Jimmy Buffett has a song called “Volcano,” which actually makes a dynamic and dramatic Act Two opener. By and large, the songs are well-placed to advance the story, like the way Tammy’s friends use “Fins” to caution her against the “landsharks” trolling tropical resorts, or how “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” begins laying the foundation for Rachel to, inevitably, let her hair down.
Similarly, “Margaritaville” is not the lusty singalong you might remember from your last Buffett concert, but a rather wistful song whose lyrics deftly integrate the various subplots as Act One closes. The sharp repartee between our third couple-in-waiting, elderly barfly J.D. (Don Sparks) and hotel owner Marley (Rema Ward), make “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” a definite highlight, while Wednesday's crowd — who surely knew the song’s longer title — made it one of the night’s biggest audience favorites.
Still, imbibe enough of that island rum and you’re bound to encounter a few hiccups. “Come Monday” feels a little like they wanted to shoehorn a big hit into into the finale; it might work just as well as Tammy and Rachel shed their mainland personalities in Act One. The show stalls a little during “He Went to Paris,” when J.D. leisurely leafs through a memory chest as he, Tully and Marley flee that erupting volcano in a plane. And the montage after a spectacular “Cheeseburger In Paradise” feels like fast-forwarding to the inevitable happy ending. But hey, it’s Jimmy Buffett. Just go with it. Enjoy the dancing zombie insurance salesmen, fully aware they are LSD flashbacks(!); wait long enough and those beach balls will arrive.
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Make no mistake, Escape From Margaritaville makes no attempt whatsoever to play to any non-Parrotheads in the audience. More power to it. Attendance was a little light Wednesday, for obvious reasons — Game 7. Anxiety hung thick in the air before the curtain; people nervously glanced at their phones. (Before the show, the usher advised checking on the game discreetly.) When word of the score leaked out at intermission, the tension relaxed and a familiar “Let’s go, Astros!” chant began echoing through Sarofim Hall. Maybe not quite as loud as at Minute Maid Park a few blocks away, but just as sincere.
By then the Astros had scored all the runs they would need to secure their first-ever World Series title; of course we didn’t know that at the time, and Act Two felt a little extra fidgety…until Nolan updated the score right before the encore. But, and this is the truth, the activities onstage were engaging enough to push the Astros’ historic struggle against the Dodgers out of mind. Momentarily. Therefore, if Escape to Margaritaville can make an effective diversion from one of the most stressful evenings in Houston’s history, it might stand half a chance in Broadway’s shark-infested waters too.
Escape to Margaritaville continues at 7:30 p.m. tonight, 8 p.m. November 3, 2 and 8 p.m. November 4 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. November 5 at The Hobby Center For the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2400 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $35-$165.