Arts & Entertainment

“Escape to Margaritaville” Opens In Chicago

Matthew Murphy"Escape to Margaritaville" features the music of island-rocker Jimmy Buffet.

After two years of workshops and script readings, “Escape to Margaritaville” premiered at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre Nov. 9. The musical features Jimmy Buffett’s songs, including his most popular hits “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Come Monday,” as well as new songs written for the production.The PHOENIX spoke with the cast and crew about their experiences with the production. Mike O’Malley, co-author of the book “Escape to Margaritaville,” spoke about his inspiration behind writing the book, which laid the groundwork for the musical.

“In a world that seems often senseless, we are trying to find things that make sense,” O’Malley said. “I wanted to write a story that could take people on a journey.”

Rema Webb stars as Marley, who is the proprietor of the Margaritaville Hotel and Bar and mother figure for Tully. Webb spoke highly of Buffett’s songs and lyrics.

“[Buffett] talks about his daily life and how he’s really feeling, like a country singer,” Webb said. “His tunes are catchy, but if you really listen to the words, they’re really deep and wonderful and beautiful.”

The comedic and romantic musical takes place in the warm and tropical Margaritaville, an island in the Caribbean. City folk come to have fun in the Caribbean sunshine, away from the stresses of everyday life, and the locals take part in shenanigans that they can later sweet talk their way out of.  

The Chicago production of “Escape to Margaritaville” is directed by Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Tony Award nominee Kelly Devine. The production features three love stories, with the main focus being on Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) and Rachel (Alison Luff). The secondary love stories are between characters Tammy (Lisa Howard) and Brick (Eric Peterson) and Marley and J.D. (Don Sparks).

Tully is a bartender and singer who charms female tourists as they vacation on the island, and Rachel is an intelligent, career-driven tourist. When their worlds collide, Tully is forced to question his past and future as their love becomes as intoxicating as the hotel bar’s margaritas.

Tammy and Rachel are best friends who embark on a vacation to Margaritaville as an engagement present for Tammy. Upon arriving to the tropical island, the pair meet Tully and Brick commencing the fun and mischief.

Sparks stars as J.D., a Vietnam War veteran who comes to Margaritaville in search of joy and peace. Sparks was a cast member in the La Jolla, California production of “Escape to Margaritaville” earlier this year, and said he enjoyed his time spent working on the musical and has come to strongly support the show.

“If the problem in the world is that there is not enough lightness and celebration right now, this is the solution,” Sparks said. “Jimmy Buffett’s music and spirit really is about celebrating nature, and the present and the now and joy. People are escaping to Margaritaville for two hours, and I’m so grateful to be part of something that’s like that.”

“Escape to Margaritaville,” the slogan reads, is “more than a musical. It’s a way of life.”  The production allows audience members as well as the cast to escape reality for the show’s two-hour run time.

“Trying to stay serious when rehearsing [is challenging] because we were all having so much fun,” Peterson said. “That’s the truth. The music is so fun and the vibe of the show is all about laughter, joy and being silly, and that definitely bleeds into the rehearsal.”

Matthew MurphyDon Sparks (left) and Remains Webb (right) play romantic interests in the musical. Matthew Murphy

Luff said she didn’t connect with her character at first. It took a few readings and rehearsals before she began to identify with Rachel, who is an environmental scientist with two degrees from Harvard and Stanford universities. Nolan, on the other hand, rediscovered attributes about himself through his portrayal of Tully.

“I feel like the show chose me,” Nolan said. “I often don’t feel like I’ve been cast right, but I think I’m probably wrong; I guess I’m not very good at casting myself. This is a really healthy role for me to be playing right now, and I’m remembering a part of my skill set [like guitar playing] that I have forgotten.”

Jimmy Buffett’s “island escapism” music sets the tone for the production. The musical portrays the easygoing, relaxing beach life, and in order to prepare for rehearsals, the actors had to embody Buffett’s care free spirit.

“I drove on Route 66, by myself, when I started rehearsals in March,” Sparks said. “I took a solo adventure, and I listened to Jimmy Buffett songs because I didn’t know a lot of them. That was all the preparation I needed to get into that mood of adventure, and that got me into the right space.”

In preparation for the show, Nolan, Buffett and the production team flew down to Islamorada in the Florida Keys to perform an hour-long concert of Buffett’s music at the Green Turtle Inn, a seafood restaurant. Nolan spoke about his process of getting into character, which included spending a lot of time with his guitar and going to the gym.  

“Your life prepares you for a role,” Nolan said. “I always feel like I got cast in things when it was the perfect moment for me to be cast; either psychologically or personally.”

The cast’s performance, in combination with Buffett’s Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll music and lyrics, will leave audiences dreaming and planning their next tropical getaway.     

“I think if you’ve never heard a Jimmy Buffett song ever, you would come to see the show and all the songs and the stories would make sense,” O’Malley said. “It would be more rewarding [than knowing Buffett’s songs] because you won’t be thinking about those songs, you’ll be watching the show.”

“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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