For the record, that plot goes like this: Rachel (Alison Luff) is an uptight environmental scientist; her BFF Tammy (Lisa Howard) is engaged to a jerk. Together, they take a one-week vacation to a rundown, Yelp-disapproved Caribbean hotel called Margaritaville. There, they meet Tully Mars (Paul Alexander Nolan), the laid-back, guitar-strumming on-site entertainer, and Brick (Eric Petersen), the dim but sweet bartender. Do you see where this is going?
I suppose you could call “Escape to Margaritaville” a coherent aesthetic experience, in that laziness is not just its method but its message. “Work is a dirty word around here,” Tully tells Tammy. “If you say it again we’ll have to wash your mouth out with tequila.”
“Work work work work work work,” she eagerly responds.
Tully, you see, is more than just a beach bum; he’s a philosopher in flip-flops. His profound challenge to Rachel is to decide whether she can let down her scientific hair long enough to crawl into a cabana for five days of casual sex with him. (She can.) His challenge to the audience isn’t much nobler: Why be an anxious hamster when you can go fishin’? Why scramble for The Man when you can sizzle and guzzle and fire up a fat spliff?
That theme could make for an amusing scene or two, but Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, the authors of the musical’s book, have two hours and 20 minutes to fill. They are clever enough with the punch lines, but twists involving a volcano eruption, a buried treasure and a tap-dancing chorus of zombie insurance agents smell of general despair.
Worse, because even vapid jukebox musicals apparently require a moral these days, this one forces Tully to give up his toxic bachelor ways in favor of his singing career, which instantly takes off. And Rachel must realize that being ambitious about her work doesn’t mean she can’t have a man, especially one who has now become a star.
Did I mention that her work has something to do with potato power?
The story, too, seems to be powered by a tuber. How else to explain why a plot that spends most of its time selling the anti-establishment, no-strings lifestyle concludes like any old-fashioned musical with an island wedding and everyone ecstatically paired? Even the hotel’s tart proprietor (Rema Webb) and resident dirty old man (Don Sparks) are required to hook up. And though “Escape to Margaritaville” means to be feminist — Rachel name-drops Sheryl Sandberg as a hero — it’s a skimpy feminism at best. It utterly fails the Bechdel Test, no doubt thanks to a hangover.
As a matter of corporate promotion, though, the musical is totally on point. Tully is the perfect ambassador for the Margaritaville brand, which is built on the idea that you can rent hedonism by the week at a namesake resort or bring it home nightly in a can of LandShark Lager without working a day in your life.
Like all such branding, it’s a con, of course; no one but pirates can sustain that lifestyle. And no one with any ambition wants to. Mr. Buffett, Margaritaville’s prototype and mastermind, has a wife and family and 5,000 employees; he works nonstop.
That makes “Escape to Margaritaville” even more cynical than the usual jukebox musical, which merely promotes a catalog of songs, not an alcohol-based empire. The director Christopher Ashley’s lumpy, garish production can’t disguise that agenda; nothing could. If the show nevertheless feels basically genial, it’s a tribute to the cast, which is scarily comfortable selling this hooey. Is there nothing Broadway performers can’t do? Or won’t do?
It’s the songs themselves that are problematic. They may work well enough on the radio or in concert but, conscripted for theatrical service, grow quickly monotonous. Reverse engineered from a marketing concept, they seem catchy yet catch nothing; like the show itself, they’re all hooks, no fish.