If the producers behind “Escape to Margaritaville,” the new Broadway-bound musical from Gulf Coast troubadour Jimmy Buffett, scheduled a try-out stop in New Orleans expecting a friendly test audience before heading to New York, it worked.
Friday night at the Saenger Theatre — where (the story goes) a young Jimmy Buffett watched movies from the balcony and first dreamed of becoming a star — much of the crowd looked like they just got off the cruise ship, sporting Hawaiian shirts and fake-flower leis.
They also came prepared to sing. Buffett called his 1985 greatest hits album “Songs You Know By Heart,” and the audience at the Saenger proved the truth of that title — particularly when Buffett himself made a surprise appearance at curtain call and led the delighted crowd in an enthusiastic encore of “Margaritaville.”
While Buffett’s unlikely rise from French Quarter busker to wildly successful recording artist and proprietor of laid-back restaurants and resorts is a story fit for the stage, “Escape to Margaritaville” forgoes the bio-musical format of shows like “Jersey Boys” or “Beautiful.” Instead, “Margaritaville” takes the “Mamma Mia” route, crafting a fictional story that relies on well-known songs to deliver plot lines and dramatic moments.
Directed by Tony-winner Christopher Ashley, the booze-and-sun-soaked romp premiered earlier this year at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. After stops in Houston and New Orleans, the show will travel to Chicago before touching down on Broadway early next year.
“Escape to Margaritaville” centers on Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), a Jimmy Buffett stand-in who makes his living playing music in the beachside bar at a rundown island resort. The regular influx of tourists means a new girlfriend each week for the boyish charmer. But Tully and his lunk-headed bartender pal Brick (Eric Petersen) change their tune when they fall hard for Rachel (Alison Luff) and Tammy (Lisa Howard), a workaholic scientist and her fun-loving girlfriend who escape Cincinnati for a bachelorette vacation just days before Tammy is set to wed Mr. Wrong.
Nolan, who shined on Broadway in last year’s “Bright Star,” turns in a sturdy performance — assured, but never swaggering — as does Luff, though her character is hardly developed beyond Tully’s object of affection and a straight-laced foil for the vivacious Tammy.
Howard, as Tammy, is bright and brassy, and her lusty attraction to Brick (the equally funny Peterson), wrings comedy from conflict.
Concocted by TV veterans Greg Garcia (“Yes, Dear,” “My Name is Earl”) and Mike O’Malley (“Shameless”), the plot is boilerplate boy-meets-girl, but there’s some fun in the details.
The story is bolstered by a cavalcade of sitcom schtick — for both better and worse — and a strong cast of local characters, including resort owner Marley (Rema Webb), tie-dyed Jamal (Andre Ward), and weathered old barfly J.D. (Don Sparks), who keeps losing his shaker of salt.
Following a lively first act that establishes the characters and runs through a chunk of Buffett’s catalog, including the rowdy sing-along “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” the second act careens wildly forward. After the island is evacuated when a volcano threatens to blow (prompting another spirited sing-along, “Volcano”), the show rips through several years of storyline over roughly 40 minutes, until Tully and Rachel finally reunite at the resort. It’s a head-spinning series of events that neatly, if predictably, wraps up the loose ends at a pace that certainly keeps the show from flagging.
The writers’ biggest challenge is trying to shoehorn in the 27 songs that make up the musical numbers. “Coconut Telegraph,” a reference to the quick spread of island gossip, is a great vehicle for exposition during the first act, but when it turns into a medley of tunes, the number gets convoluted. Other songs, like “Ragtop Day” and “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus,” have scenes custom-built for their inclusion, and while the latter sets up some comic moments, the former doesn’t have much to add.
Not surprisingly, the most effective number is “Margaritaville,” which starts as a down-tempo, wistful rendition of Buffett’s best-know song before building up to a show stopper. It’s a good example of what the show gets right, beyond just the boozy party vibe.
Buffett’s songs are littered with characters full of regret for lives misspent, nostalgia for the way things never were, and halfhearted hope that the next long shot might be the one that finally pays off. “Escape to Margaritaville” instills the show with plenty of heart by not shying away from the songwriter’s rough-edged romantic tendencies.
The big question is whether there’s an audience for “Escape to Margaritaville” beyond Buffett’s loyal following of Parrotheads. The show does right by fans, capturing the spirit of the music and staying true to Buffett’s unique brand of 5-o’clock-somewhere fun, which is probably enough to keep it afloat in the short term. But can “Escape to Margaritaville” find enduring success on Broadway?
It seems short of a sure thing, but Jimmy Buffett knows better than anyone that even the most unlikely dreams can come true.
"Escape to Margaritaville"
WHEN: Through Oct. 28
WHERE: Saenger Theatre
1111 Canal St.
TICKETS: $35 and up
INFO: BroadwayInNewOrleans.com or (800) 982-2787