Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of The Revolutionists
La Jolla Playhouse has a record of not only sending new musicals to Broadway, but of shepherding one of the top sellers of the jukebox genre, Jersey Boys, through its Broadway try-out. Crack lighting designer Howell Binkley is along for the ride again, as is choreographer Kelly Devine. The creative team of scenic designer Walt Spangler, costume designer Paul Tazewell, sound designer Brian Ronan, and music supervisor Christopher Jahnke have done exquisite work under Christopher Ashley's solidly entertaining direction.
That said, Escape to Margaritaville doesn't come close to touching both Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia!, the ABBA tuner it most closely resembles.
A lot of the problem is with Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley's book, which borrows liberally from Mamma Mia!. Where that show's strength lay in how cleverly it linked the (admittedly weak) plot to the songs, those linkages are often the stumbling points in the Margaritaville story.
The reason for the weakness lies in the nature of Jimmy Buffett's songs, which tend to tell stories in themselves, often in a different context. It is hard to overlay a story with a bunch of other stories, so the book's story has to be kept simple and easy to comprehend.
And it is, in fact, so simple that it basically tells itself. Two women from Cincinnati travel to Margaritaville, an isolated volcanic island intended to be a young adult playground for urbanites escaping winter. Rachel (Alison Luff) is the smart and driven one, and Tammy (Lisa Howard) is the one "escaping" (her misogynist and borderline abusive fiancé) by taking a bachelorette vacation prior to her wedding. They immediately meet Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), a "player" in more ways than one, along with his wingman, bartender Brick (Charlie Pollock).
Tully tags Rachel as his conquest for the week, only to learn that she doesn't respond well to his patented lines. Brick is taken with Tammy, and they both discover that they share self-esteem issues. There is a pack of singer/dancers in evidence, along with two older adults (Don Sparks as J. D. and Rema Webb as Marley) to provide comic relief and, ultimately, wisdom. You can probably guess the rest of the story, as long as you realize that it's told from the women's point of view.
Ms. Luff, a former Elphaba, here needs to do more acting than singing. She's fine with the acting but better when she gets to sing. Ms. Howard starred in It Shoulda Been You, and I imagine that show prepared her well for this one. She's sufficiently vulnerable and tough, each when needed, and her chemistry with Mr. Pollock is the most genuine of the bunch.
Mr. Nolan, best known for his Jesus in the Stratford-to-Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar gets the lion's share of the vocal duties as the much younger stand-in for Mr. Buffett. He has a pure, sweet voice and handles the ballads particularly well. Mr. Pollock is earnest, and that's all he really needs to succeed here. Mr. Sparks is funnier than Ms. Webb, but Ms. Webb is ultimately wise when it counts.
Audiences are encouraged to wear appropriate resort dress to the performance, and several in attendance at the performance I saw did so. It's that kind of show.
Escape to Margaritaville has extended twice and will close July 9, 2017. It performs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm on the La Jolla Playhouse campus at the University of California, San Diego. Tickets are available by calling (858) 550-1010 or by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org. The show plays New Orleans October 20-28, Houston October 31 November 5, and Chicago's Oriental Theatre starting November 9. The producers have announced that a spring 2018 Broadway debut is planned, at a theater yet to be announced.
Cast members not listed above are: Andre Ward (Jamal), and ensemble members Matt Allen, Sara Andreas, Katie Banville, Hanz Enyeart, Marjorie Failoni, Samantha Farrow, Keely Hutton, Justin Keats, Mike Millan, Justin Mortelliti, Ian Paget, Sharone Sayegh, Alex Michael Stoll and Jena VanElslander. The ensemble also includes three UC San Diego M.F.A. students: Andrew Gallop, Volen Iliev and Mo Rodvanich.