Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Escape to Margaritaville
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Shawn William Smith (center) and Cast
Photo by Alexxis Grant, Timeless Present Photos
With MJ, A Beautiful Noise, & Juliet, and Moulin Rouge all currently running in New York, it seems like Broadway audiences can't get enough of jukebox musicals: shows that use familiar pop and rock songs, usually all from a single recording artist or group, as its musical score. While Escape to Margaritaville, which uses many well-known songs written and/or recorded by Jimmy Buffett, may not be on the same level of such long-running and well-reviewed jukebox shows as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical or Jersey Boys, it also isn't that bad. In fact, the combination of mindless escapism, familiar tunes, and a feel-good story make for a silly and fun musical comedy. Arizona Broadway Theatre is currently presenting the local regional premiere of this show, which had a short Broadway run in 2018, with a spirited cast, colorful creative elements, and sure-footed direction.

Set at a third-rate beach resort on an island with a volcano, Escape to Margaritaville is a love story between Tully, the slacker guitar-playing singer at the resort bar who is prone to have flings with the female tourists before sending them off on their way back home at the end of their stay, and Rachel, the workaholic environmental scientist who arrives with her best friend Tammy for a week-long getaway before Tammy's wedding. Tully's friend, bartender Brick, hits it off with Tammy, and Rachel lets herself go and ends up sleeping with Tully.

Will Tully and Rachel end up together? Will Tammy dump her horrible fiancé and end up with Brick? And will that volcano on the island end up erupting so the Buffett song "Volcano" can factor into the plot? The answers to those questions aren't too hard to guess in the very predictable plot. However, how it gets to its ending and how it incorporates Buffett's songs into the plot is quite fun.

Buffett isn't just a popular singer and songwriter, with many of his lyrics forming well-crafted story songs, but he's also written several best-selling books, so he knows a thing or two about storytelling. That helps in how bookwriters Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley have taken songs Buffett either wrote or recorded to form not only the plot but also traits of the characters and some fun visual gags. So, the "sponge cake" and "lost shaker of salt" that you'll probably remember from the lyrics to Buffett's most famous song, "Margaritaville," make an appearance during that number. While I'm not that familiar with all of his music, I did know about a quarter of the songs in the show and laughed out loud many times when things like that previously mentioned sponge cake showed up. I also think Garcia and O'Malley did a pretty good job incorporating the songs into a plot without having it get too out of line. Only the oddity of having the ensemble portray dead insurance salesmen zombies not once but twice seems completely out of tune with the rest of the island-themed humor in the show.

The cast all do a great job playing these mostly caricature characters and provide enough realism in their portrayals to make them more than just two dimensional. As Tully, Shawn William Smith has a genuine likable quality that makes you see why so many female tourists fall in love with him. His soulful voice brings an earthy quality to his many songs, and his guitar playing skills are quite good. Melissa Campbell does a great job as the career-focused and idealistic Rachel. Campbell brings a natural tough exterior at first to Rachel that realistically begins to soften once she and Tully spend more time together and she lets her guard and her inhibitions down.

As Tammy, the bride to be who starts to realize she might be engaged to the wrong guy, Kristin Litzenberg is endearing and lovable. Tyler Gallaher is a lot of fun as the goofy bartender Brick, with great comic timing that gets big laughs. All four have bright and warm singing voices that shine on their many songs. In the supporting cast, Dwan Hayes is feisty and fun as Marley, the owner of the resort, and Michael Weaver is a hoot as the salty J.D., the guy who keeps losing his shaker of salt. Also, Skylar Gamble provides a fresh and upbeat take as Jamal, one of the resort workers. The small ensemble do a great job playing multiple roles.

Ken Urso's direction keeps the drama low and the comedy high but also ensures the few serious moments in the show resonate. The choreography by Lauran Stanis is upbeat, varied, and danced well by the cast. Lizzie Webb's music direction delivers warm vocals from the cast and bright notes from the small onstage band that sounds great on the mix of country, folk, and reggae songs in Buffett's catalog. The costumes by Dr. Heather Striebel are the appropriate mix of loud Hawaiian shirts, sun hats, and Bermuda shorts, and Jaron Hermansen's lighting washes the stage in oranges and blues to portray the sun-drenched tropical setting. The set by Walt Spangler is from the recent tour and does a good job of depicting the island bar setting plus a fun set piece for an airplane in act two.

Escape to Margaritaville isn't a great jukebox musical, but it is fun, escapist fare that won't make you think too hard and will put a smile on your face. Just be prepared to find yourself singing along to the familiar songs, or at least be aware that other Buffett fans around you will be humming and singing along.

For this production, ABT's Executive Chef David Young has created a fun, tropical themed menu with offerings including jerk chicken, island tacos, coconut shrimp, gumbo, key lime pie, and, of course, a cheeseburger in paradise.

Escape to Margaritaville runs through April 16, 2023, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 623-776-8400.

Direction by Ken Urso
Choreography: Lauran Stanis
Music Direction: Lizzie Webb
Set Design: Walt Spangler
Costume Design: Dr. Heather Striebel
Additional Costume Design: Karissa Noonan
Wig Design/Coordination: Chris Zizzo
Sound Design: Jesse Worley
Lighting Design: Jaron Hermansen
Stage Manager: Leigh Treat
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Tully: Shawn William Smith
Rachel: Melissa Campbell
Tammy: Kristin Litzenberg
Brick: Tyler Gallaher
Marley: Dwan Hayes
J.D.: Michael Weaver
Jamal: Skylar Gamble
Chadd: Kyle Munson
Goon 1: Justin Tepper
Goon 2: Alden Caple
Ensemble:Alyssa Armstrong, Jeleesa Monet Levy, Allie Tamburello, Ashley Woodson