Chicago Theatre Review
A License to Chill
Escape to Margaritaville – Broadway in Chicago
Jimmy Buffett is more than merely a composer and singer. He’s a Pop Culture legend. For the past 40 years he’s become the symbol of a more relaxed, carefree way of life. Hisfollowers and fans are referred to as Parrotheads, and they’re all flocking to Chicago for one reason: to imbibe on the PG-rated, booze-infused, Hawaiian shirt and sandal-wearing new musical playing in the Windy City, that’s Broadway bound. Patterned after other successful jukebox musicals, particularly “Mamma Mia!,” this show incorporates over two dozen of Buffett’s likably catchy, toe-tapping tunes into a single story. The musical features a book cowritten by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, known for their work on such television shows as “Yes, Dear” and “My Name is Earl.” Perhaps that’s the reason this new musical, which is certainly lighthearted and fun, is reminiscent of a two-hour-long sitcom.
The production is guided by Broadway’s most recent Tony Award-winner for the Direction of a Musical, Christopher Ashley. The Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse, where this show was developed and had its premiere, Mr. Ashley brings the same energy and creativity that made “Come From Away” a continued, heartfelt hit on the Great White Way. With brisk, sometimes athletic choreography, courtesy of Broadway’s Kelly Devine, he navigates this sweetly breezy love story between three different couples.
Employed at Margaritaville, a beachside hotel on an unnamed tropical island, Tully is the resort’s guitar-strumming entertainer and lothario. His best pals are Brick, the hideaway’s likable, air-headed bartender, and J.D., a lovable burned-out, bad-tempered veteran who spends the show trying to find his grounded airplane and his lost shaker of salt. The resort’s managed by a lusty and gutsy woman named Marley, who runs her holiday retreat with an iron hand. The latest batch of arriving tourists are snowbirds, here for the warmth and relaxation of the island. The group includes Rachel, an environmental scientist who just can’t leave her work behind. She’s brought along Tammy, her best gal pal, for one final fling before her marriage to a despicable jerk back in Cincinnati.
This cast is led by two topnotch young performers, each with some very impressive Broadway and regional credits. Paul Alexander Nolan is Tully, an easygoing beach bum who epitomizes the Jimmy Buffett attitude, look and way of life. He makes a likable, scruffy playboy, who finally finds true love with Rachel. She’s played by beautiful, exuberantly talented actress and singer, Alison Luff. Together these two provide a subtle chemistry that carries this show between each scene and from song to song.
The secondary leads, who also sport an array of top Broadway credits, are first-rate talents. They’re portrayed here with charm and humor by a couple of actors who are entirely lovable in this musical. Tammy is brought to life by the radiant Lisa Howard. This actress has a big smile and such an outgoing personality that it’s impossible not grin every time she appears on stage. Eric Petersen, a character actor with a lifetime of recognizable stage and TV credits, is a teddybear of a guy, who brings boyish appeal and unabashed humor to the role of Brick. Both actors display powerhouse voices and seem to be a perfect fit, as we watch their relationship ignite and explode. We cheer for both of these folks, especially when Brick unexpectedly shows up at Tammy’s wedding rehearsal dinner. These two actors provide a nice counter to the relationship between Tully and Rachel.
Veteran stage, TV and film actor Don Sparks plays J.D. as a sweetly appealing curmudgeon. He evokes lots of laughter with his carefree comments and relentless search for his hidden treasure and his old airplane. J.D.’s unflagging romantic pursuit of Marley, played with strength, dignity and feminine crustiness by Broadway trouper, Rema Webb, provides another warm, humorous plot line. Their relationship is funny, but we know that these two kids will ultimately get together in the end, and we cheer for them when they do.
This Broadway bound musical is simply a good time. Its party vibe begins in the theatre lobby and continues throughout its two hours of music and mirth. The biggest problem is that there are no raised stakes for any of the characters or their slight storylines. Like a Jimmy Buffett song, everything feels casual and easygoing, with a no-worries philosophy lingering over everything. A silly side plot about zombie insurance salesmen haunting the island could easily be removed without hurting the story.
Some of Buffett’s music is well-incorporated. His most famous song, “Margaritaville,” nicely closes the first act, and is performed as an almost melancholy meditation. That’s a shrewd move, which evokes some thought and wistful regret. The use of the song “Volcano” as a plot device is another clever stroke of genius. But, more often, many other songs seem artificially tacked on, such as “Grapefruit—Juicy Fruit,” “Cheeserburger in Paradise,” as well as the strangely titled “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus,” that opens Act II.
The show features a pleasant-sounding, steel drum-infused onstage Caribbean band, led by the gifted Christopher Jahnke. And, although Tully often strums his guitar on the bandstand, alongside his fellow musicians, he never interacts with or even acknowledges them, until the final curtain call. Walt Spangler’s scenic design is appropriately evocative of the islands and shifts to each locale with ease. Howell Binkley’s lighting nicely bathes the stage with sunshine and moonlight; and Paul Tazewell’s costumes, accented by Leah J. Loukas’ wigs, hair styling and makeup design, effectively creates the look of a tropical resort.
Whatever else, this show is simply a sitcom-like, escapist entertainment. There’s not too much to think or worry about in this play. Audiences, especially those of a certain age, can simply leave their troubles outside the door, grab a tropical drink in the lobby and flash back to a simpler, more carefree time. There’s no denying that this trip to Margaritaville is also another formulaic jukebox musical, very much in the style of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia!” Most of the singer/composer’s songbook is on display in this show. Will it become the next Broadway hit? That’s debatable. It will, however, appeal to the many, many Jimmy Buffett fans around the country and may even ignite a new interest in his music among younger theatergoers. But whatever else it is, this musical offers a “License to Chill.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 15-December 2 by Broadway in Chicago at the Ford Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the BIC Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com