The magic needed to make a commercially successful “jukebox musical” – a songwriter’s body of work connected for a stage show by a plot with characters – seems to have little relationship to the quality of the music.
Neil Simon at his successful peak couldn’t make a do-able show out of the entire Gershwin songbook, made available for the first time, just for him. Dance maven Twyla Thorpe completely struck out with the corpus of Nobel Prize-winner Bob Dylan.
Fats Waller and Duke Ellington inspired fairly successful revues but don’t ask about Jelly Roll Morton or the Doors. This list just makes the success of Jersey Boys (the Four Seasons), Buddy (Holly) or Mamma Mia! (ABBA) even more admirable.
Jimmy Buffett is an ideal candidate for a shot at this format: A beloved and prolific balladeer who has spread for decades a gospel of kick-back-and-enjoy, accumulating hordes of passionate fans who respond to his blissful hedonism.
Thus the La Jolla Playhouse, presently on a roll as a begetter of successful shows, is unveiling Escape to Margaritaville, named for Buffett’s most enduring anthem, in a production already aimed across a national tour towards Broadway.
As a piece of theatre, it’s engaging escapism still in the polishing stage. As a Jimmy Buffett concert with extras, it’s terrific: Twenty-four songs (including two new ones) from 44 years, performed by a tight stage band of seven under the leadership of Christopher Jahnke, various well-coached actors and, frankly, a considerable portion of the audience.
The story, grafted onto the catalogue by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, two canny, up-to-speed television craftsmen, is standard Boy-meets-girl, gets girl, loses girl, gets girl stuff with some variations (Girl also meets/gets/loses/etc. boy, as in equal opportunity) and a key role for another aspect: worldly success.
It’s fascinating to watch Garcia and O’Malley tweak the plot to set up song lyrics. It’s too early for a drink. Where’s that salt-shaker? It’s pronounced “Hey-soos.” Many that I undoubtedly missed but will be instantly identified by the Buffett fans who style themselves, “Parrotheads.”
I’m not sure where all this is happening. Some island in the Caribbean with an active volcano and non-stop party, augmented each week by a turnover of pale Yankees seeking romance. The designers – Walt Spangler with the billboard scenery, Paul Tazewell mining a bottomless truck of casualwear, Howell Binkley splashing the pastel lights that heal – conspire to make it a postcard from a paradise where sand and humidity never become a nuisance.
Director Christopher Ashley has all hands in leisurely lockstep but there’s a feeling of tricks to come. Kelly Devine is an ideal choreographer for such material, able to keep everybody galumphing about joyously while watching for the chances to go weird. (The insurance-salesmen zombies are not quite there but well along.)
There are some questions about the casting. Paul Alexander Nolan and Alison Luff start so strongly as the couple-to-be that they have to fumble with the revelations to update the audience. Fortunately, they both have enough easy appeal to move the romance along but there could be attention paid to their magic.
Rema Webb’s lilting calypso accent, unique among the cast voices, suggests she herself is from elsewhere. Andre Ward plays, with considerable verve, a local scamp who sounds fresh from voice class.
And no problem at all with dear Don Sparks, a local favorite passing through with another of his endless pro projects. He’s added a quite serviceable basso singing voice to his known tools and, as always, selects the bits that work to further the role, this time a local curmudgeon.
As for the Buffett songs, well what can I possibly add to the endless parade of praise? I don’t know most of them but I seem to recognize them all. “Margaritaville” is indeed a classic. “Volcano” takes the stage as if born there. “Grapefruit–Juicy Fruit” is right behind. “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus” makes far too much sense for a barroom stagger. Others, especially in the second act, begin to melt together like a championship banana split.
The night I saw the show, Buffett himself turned up for the final curtain calls, as I suspect he might any time he’s in town and feeling mellow. What an irresistible, barefoot imp he is, tiny and endlessly genial, pulling the whole room together with his personal warmth.
I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he did the same thing with the final version of this show.
(Continues in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through July 9, 2017.)