By Aaron Krause
Escape to Margaritaville accomplishes what its title suggests. Specifically, the show conjures the kind of laid-back escape during which you might sport a hat and sunglasses, and hold a tall drink topped with a cherry or pineapple. In between sips, you snap, clap, tap, and/or sing along to Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits.
In fact, during a performance of Actors’ Playhouse’s energetic and believable production, which runs through Feb. 26, one could hear several “Parrot Heads” enthusiastically singing along.
“Salt, salt, salt!” the Buffett fans (known as “Parrot Heads”) chanted in between lyrics to the song “Margaritaville.”
Perhaps these Buffett fans came solely for the songs, and that is fine. Indeed, Escape to Margaritaville, a 2017 American jukebox musical, features almost 25 Buffett hits. Fortunately, Actors’ Playhouse’s talented cast features performers with powerful and expressive voices. Also, at least one performer ably plays the guitar.
Happily, the cast comprises triple and quadruple threats. That is because the show is not just a concert of Buffett songs arranged haphazardly. Indeed, the musical has a plot, however formulaic, that manages to touch and amuse you. In addition, the show’s librettists, Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, have arranged the songs so that they make sense within the context of their thin and unoriginal story.
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back is essentially the main plot. In addition, as is true in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, there is at least one other couple.
More specifically, the plot revolves around a part-time bartender and singer named Tully. He works at a run-down hotel in the Caribbean called Margaritaville. Meanwhile, career-minded scientist Rachel visits the hotel, along with her soon-to-be-married friend, Tammy.
Tully falls for Rachel, while Tammy and Brick, another bartender at the hotel, show feelings for each other. Predictably, the musical ends on a happy note, with all the characters upbeat and satisfied.
One of the roughly two-and-a-half hour production’s strongest moments comes before intermission. In particular, J.D., a one-eyed beach bum who hangs around the bar, is searching for a salt shaker for his shrimp. And, with that, the cast launches into “Margaritaville,” a song which encourages the listener to “smell those shrimp, they’re beginning to boil.”
During the reviewed performance, audience members sang and clapped along while the actors performed the number. An upbeat, carefree aura permeated the theater. Then, suddenly, red lights blinked repeatedly while a loud, ominous sound rang out. A volcano erupted near the hotel. If you were not paying close attention, the red blinking lights and the sudden loud noise surely would have startled you. To the cast and crew’s credit, it all happened so fast and without any hint. The suddenness of it all reinforced the message that we should enjoy life as we live it, in the moment.
But enjoying life seems hard for the workaholic scientist Rachel. She seems on a mission to complete a project which involves using potatoes as an alternative energy resource. It seemingly leaves her with no time to relax. Appropriately, Rachel sings the number “It’s My Job.” The lyrics, in part, go “It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess and that’s enough reason to go for me. It’s my job to be better than the rest and that makes the day for me.”
While Rachel concentrates on work, one of Tammy’s pleasures seems to be eating. In fact, we learn that her fiancé, Chadd, forced her to stick to a diet of carrot juice and sunflower seeds in order to lose weight. So, you can imagine how she longs for a cheeseburger. And, so, Tammy and others sing, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” During the number, they hold cheeseburgers up high, as though the fat-laden food is the cure for all ills.
Actually, grapefruit is better for you, and the show’s book writers have included this food in a song titled “Grapefruit, Juicy Fruit.” Tully and other characters sing it when Brick expresses fear about the volcano. The song is a poor man’s version of a cross between “My Favorite Things” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”
With one exception, the show’s music consists entirely of songs that Buffett previously recorded or co-wrote. The exception is the original song, “Three Chords.” Tully sings it to break the ice between him and Rachel. During the number, he teaches her how to play guitar.
For those unfamiliar with Buffett, his unique style of music is called “Gulf and Western.” It combines elements of country, folk rock, pop, and Caribbean, with tropical lyrical themes.
Buffett has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. For more than five decades, Buffett (born in 1946) has entertained audiences with songs about the faces and places he has encountered. With humor and detail, Buffett writes about people such as hustlers, beach bums, and pirates. The themes about which he writes include escapism and wanderlust.
In addition to a couple of onstage actors playing guitar, a rich-sounding live band accompanies the performers in song without drowning them out. The band plays under musical director Nick Guerrero.
The performers not only sing, but deftly perform a tap number that may recall the backstage hit musical 42nd Street.
While David Arisco thoughtfully directs, Ron Hutchins choreographs the high energy dancing.
Cast members offer first-rate acting performances. Among the lead roles, standouts include Sam Sherwood as Tully and Kayleen Seidl as Rachel. Both performers exhibit good chemistry. Individually, they also shine.
Seidl creates a strong female character as Rachel. Specifically, she imbues her with determination befitting Rachel’s workaholic nature. Over the course of the musical, almost imperceptibly, Seidl’s Rachel relaxes as Tully becomes a bigger part of her life.
Speaking of Tully, Sherwood lends the character sincerity and an easygoing charm that might call to mind Elvis Presley. It is a quality that instantly makes Tully likable. As a result, you pull for him and Rachel to be together.
As Tammy, Cindy Pearce injects the character with a zest for life. Also, Pearce conveys Tammy’s insecurity. Certainly, you feel for her when her fiancé, Chadd (Jeremy Sevelovitz) tries to control her. While Sevelovitz could act more threatening as Chadd, it stings when he insults Tammy about her weight.
Jordan Bell endows Brick with a big heart and an endearing goofiness. Also, Bell and Pearce display good chemistry as a loving couple.
Kareema Khouri nails a Caribbean accent as Marley, the woman who runs the resort. In addition, the performer conveys charisma and no-nonsense assertiveness.
Stephen G. Anthony embodies J.D. with a good-natured affability, while Elijah Word injects energy into Jamal and Ted.
Scenic designer Sean McClelland’s brightly-colored rendering of the hotel looks inviting but not crumbling enough to suggest a run-down hotel.
Eric Nelson’s mood-enhancing lighting, Ellis Tillman’s colorful and character-befitting costumes, and Shaun Mitchell’s deft sound design are all production assets.
Overall, Actors’ Playhouse’s production of Escape to Margaritaville offers a much-needed respite from our troubled world.
Actors’ Playhouse’s production of Escape to Margaritaville continues through Feb. 26 at the Miracle Theatre. Its address is 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m. on select Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Ticket prices range from $40 to $100. For tickets, call (305) 444-9923 or go to www.actorsplayhouse.org. Discounts and rush tickets are also available.