Arts & Entertainment

“Escape to Margaritaville” Thrives on Energy Despite Flaws

Emily RoscaJimmy Buffet performs with the cast of "Escape to Margaritaville"

Palm trees are waving in the breeze, and the smell of ocean is in the air. Tourists and locals are out and about, carelessly enjoying the warm summer sunshine. For two hours, Margaritaville will transform this dream life into a reality.

“Escape to Margaritaville” premiered at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph St.) Nov. 15, inviting audiences to escape life for two hours. The PHOENIX attended the red carpet event, which radiated positive energy, a hint of what show was going to offer. Director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Kelly Devine, authors Mike O’Malley and Greg Garcia and the iconic musician Jimmy Buffett attended the red carpet.

The script was skillfully crafted by O’Malley and Garcia to incorporate more than 25 of Buffett’s songs, including two of his most famous pieces,“Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Margaritaville.” New music was also written for the production.

Buffett’s catchy melodies and creative lyrics serve as the gateway to this dream world — a place where swimwear and flip-flops serve as appropriate everyday attire, and the only thing to worry about is what one’s next drink will be.  

“Escape to Margaritaville” is set in Margaritaville, a tropical island in the Caribbean. The musical tells the classic story of boy-meets-girl. Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) is a guitar-playing, smooth-talking guy who has a way with the ladies. Rachel (Alison Luff) is a no-nonsense, career-driven environmental scientist, and when they meet, sparks fly.

This love story wouldn’t have been possible without Tammy’s (Lisa Howard) engagement to Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart). As Tammy’s engagement gift, Rachel plans a bachlorette party for the two of them: an island getaway. Within five minutes of stepping foot into Margaritaville Hotel and Bar, Rachel and Tammy meet the two men who will change their lives for the better.

This classic love story has been retold time and time again, but what makes this production unique is the characters’ friendship. Similarly to the other characters’ relationships, J.D. (Don Sparks) and Marley (Rema Webb) start out as friends who participate in a game of tug-of-war — J.D. is in love with Marley, but she doesn’t reciprocate the feeling at first.  After some time passes, these friendships blossoms into romantic relationships.

The acting, dancing and singing in “Escape to Margaritaville” blend seamlessly with Buffett’s rock ‘n’ roll island tunes. Prior knowledge of Buffett’s music isn’t necessary because each scene brings each of his songs to life.

Jimmy Buffet takes pictures with fans on the red carpet of “Escape to Margaritaville.” Emily Rosca

Margaritaville’s inhabitants embrace the carefree life Buffett often sings about. This fantasy world — where a guitar-playing bartender doesn’t get fired after blowing off four days of work — is just that; a fantasy world. The audience members can relate with the show through aspects in each character’s personality, such as Tully’s determination in finding true love, Tammy’s ability to follow her heart or J.D.’s pursuit of happiness.

Out of each character’s story, Tammy’s was worthy of more development. She is prepared to marry dim-witted Chadd, who dictates her diet, guilt-tripping her into surviving on sunflower seeds and carrot juice. She cooperates at first, but after singing “Cheeseburger in Paradise” with Brick (Eric Peterson), her outlook changes. This might seem like a silly scene accompanied by a nonsensical song, but it carried an important message: never let a man, or anyone else, dictate your life.  

While “Escape to Margaritaville” is fun and entertaining, it isn’t perfect like the fantasy world it depicts.

The musical lacks character development and conflict, and the little conflict that does arise is quickly solved by a little bit of sweet talk and margaritas. The combination of not-so-subtle puns with the audience’s contagious laughter after being coaxed into singing the lyrics of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” makes up for the lack of conflict. This show isn’t meant to be a drama-driven, conflict-infused musical. Once this is realized, the production can show the audience a good time.

“Escape to Margaritaville” truly is a way of life. The islanders embrace the mindset, “breathe in, breathe out and let go.” Tully and Brick live by these words, and once Rachel and Tammy are introduced to this way of living, they are transformed.

The palpable chemistry between the cast members adds to the overall vibe of the musical. Combine that with Buffett’s laidback music, and the results are superb. The energy radiates into every corner of the theater, and the audience is left in a dreamy trance, imagining themselves flying over the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic.

“Escape to Margaritaville” will play at the Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph St.) through Dec. 2. Tickets can be purchased at Broadway in Chicago box offices by calling (800) 775-2000 and online at Ticket prices range from $32 to $127.

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