Escape to Margaritaville at the Saenger Theatre
It’s not often that we in New Orleans get to weigh in on a show before it heads to Broadway. Sure, The Bodyguard stopped by earlier this year, but that doesn’t look like it’ll ever make it to New York.
Escape to Margaritaville, however, will with a planned March 15 opening at the Marquis Theatre. How long it will stay there is another question.
Featuring over two dozen songs by Jimmy Buffett, Margaritaville doesn’t strive to be anything more than a feel-good musical, an extension of Buffett’s “island escapism” approach to life.
If you consider yourself a “Parrothead” stop right here and purchase your airplane, hotel and tickets for the show now, ’cause nothing I write will really matter to you. Others, read on.
Margaritaville’s plot is about as complex as a recipe for a tropical drink. Rachel, an environmental scientist (Alison Luff), and Tammy, a, um, it doesn’t really matter (Lisa Howard) are doing the escaping for a week-long bachelorette party on a Caribbean isle before Tammy’s marriage to zhlubby Chadd. Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) is their hotel’s resident entertainer/lothario. He has a sidekick, Brick (Eric Petersen), who’s also zhlubby but in a nice way.
It’s pretty clear from the get-go that not-interested-in-romance Rachel will melt after a few margaritas, and Tammy and Brick… But I get ahead of myself.
Greg Garcia & Mike O’Malley’s book incorporates Buffett’s songs (including a few new ones) into the tale, creating plot points from the pre-established lyrics. Some fit well, some seem dragged in, most are somewhere in-between. Act One actually makes for a pleasant, entertaining and enjoyable hour or so; imagine an episode of The Love Boat with bubbly songs.
The act ends with a slightly unexpected plot twist and Tully singing Buffett’s biggest hit, Margaritaville, in a surprisingly introspective manner. I thought it augured a more mature second act. Then the volcano exploded and, after intermission, Act Two completely jumped the shark.
It’s not that Garcia and O’Malley, both veteran sitcom writers, have merely gone from silly fun to sheer ridiculousness, but that their writing seems lazy, a means to an end, substituting preposterousness for any semblance of believable, if zany, reality.
Viagra wisecracks and a running gag in which an Anglo mispronounces “Jesus” (as in a Latino character’s name) display a similarly limp imagination. For a show set in the “Present Day,” a Beanie Baby reference is about 20 years past its expiration date. The appearance of zombies in Act One is dopey enough; by Act Two they just seem like filler.
In a broader sense, Garcia and O’Malley seem to be working from the Mamma Mia! template; yet Escape to Margaritaville makes the long-running ABBA musical seem profound by comparison.
More importantly, Mamma Mia! had over a dozen top ten worldwide hits to fuel it. Jimmy Buffett has certainly had an impressive career, but other than Come Monday, Cheeseburger in Paradise, and Margaritaville, none of his other songs have seeped into the overall public consciousness (I hadn’t even realized those first two were his).
Admittedly, (a) I’m not a Parrothead and (b) large chunks of the audience at the Saenger sang along with even the lesser known numbers. But I’d be surprised if the general audiences in New York’s metropolitan area will respond to Escape to Margaritaville the way they have to Mamma Mia! or even such other jukebox musicals as Jersey Boys or Beautiful.
You can’t blame the hard-working cast which includes Rema Webb as the wry proprietress of the hotel and Don Sparks as her ornery love interest. I sometimes got the feeling, however, that with their prodigious talents, the performers yearned to be doing something a little more emotionally satisfying or adult or something.
The direction by Christopher Ashley, a recent Tony Award-winner for Come From Away, is smooth and efficient, but he needs to exert his authority and be tougher on the librettists to prevent the entire enterprise from crashing on the craggy cliffs of Broadway.
Kelly Devine’s enthusiastic choreography aptly captures Buffett’s self-described “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll” music. Howell Binkley provides gorgeously atmospheric lighting while Paul Tazewell’s costumes seem summoned from a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café gift shop. Walt Spangler’s tiki bar/tropical isle set extends into the auditorium with giant palm trees on either side of the stage.
On opening night, an ingratiating Buffett appeared at the curtain call and, after paying tribute to his local musical influences including the late, great Fats Domino, led the audience in a rousing sing-along of Margaritaville. It was the best part of the evening. I wonder if Buffett is willing to do that eight times a week in New York.
Next up at the Saenger, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s immortal The King & I (November 14-19).
On the Road with Bob Hope & Friends at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen through Nov. 26
On the Road with Bob Hope & Friends is a follow-up to the Stage Door Canteen’s successful 2013 WWII-themed revue Thanks for the Memories: Bob Hope and His AllStar Pacific Tour. With this new show, Hope’s travels cover a wider area of time and space, ranging from North Korea in 1950 to Viet Nam in 1972.
As with Thanks for the Memories, On the Road is thoroughly entertaining. Bill Johnson headlines again as Hope and leads a cast of ladies who impersonate the women who toured military bases with him, such as Ann-Margret and Lola Falana, with charm, vivacity, and splendid singing voices.
The jokes are as corny as ever but nothing can take away from Hope’s commitment and bravery for going into war zones to lighten servicemen’s lives. The script, by Johnson and Victoria Reed, understandably avoids most mentions of politics, but we do learn that after 1966 it became increasingly challenging to book stars as attitudes toward the war in Viet Nam changed.
Johnson still tends to deliver his punch lines quicker than Hope did, not always allowing their absurdity to sink in fully (“Thailand was Siam, land of cats, twins and Yul Brynner.”). But this does keep the show’s pacing going steadfastly forward, and Linda Hope, Bob’s daughter, apparently commented that his was the best impression of her Dad she’s seen so who am I to complain?
Among the “Friends” of the title, Katelyn Gulotta offers a breathy and sex kittenish rendition of I’ve Got a Crush on You as Jayne Mansfield. Skylend Roussell is properly Vegas-y as Joey Heatherton and peppy as Ann-Margret doing Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?
Jarrell Hamilton renders Barbara McNair’s slow tempo version of For Once in my Life seductively and powerfully. Christian Tarzetti displays her crystal clear soprano as Anna Maria Alberghetti with a charming interpretation of Mira from Carnival, treating it as a touchingly revealing musical monolog.
Yet while Margi Cates’ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame as a comically sultry Kaye Stevens and Emily Gyan’s full-bodied Show Me the Way To Go Home as Fran Jeffries demonstrate assured talents, one wishes that these singers, along with others such as The Taylor Maids and Marilyn Maxwell, had been put in better context since their names are not as recognizable as they once were.
Choreographer Heidi Malnar captures the era with the frug and the watusi, at times encouraging the audience to dance along. Period gowns, overseen by costumers Denise Mixon and Reed, are tasteful and still beautiful; those outfits which cover less flesh evince why these shows were so popular.
On the Road finds the proper balance between Hope’s humor (even if we might now wonder at its appeal) and the seriousness of war during this fascinating period of history. Reed, who also directed, uses projections to convey information about the tours and performers. I suspect there might be a more inventive way of doing this as the 75-minute show does occasionally have the feel of a PowerPoint presentation.
But no matter. With its 20 musical numbers done as wonderfully as they are, you’re most likely to leave the Canteen smiling as I did.
Dear Black People by Chris James returns to Ashé Power House (1731 Baronne St.) on November 17 and 18. This satirical one-act play discusses black culture in America: identity, racism, relationships, sexuality, music, politics, stereotypes and more as it asks such questions as: Can you be pro-black and date a non-black person? What is the solution to black issues that black people alone can execute? Do black women who wear weaves subconsciously want to be white?
See ‘Em On Stage: A Production Company presents Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story November 10-26 at The AllWays Theatre (2240 St. Claude Ave.). This critically-acclaimed and award-winning Off-Broadway musical (Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards nominee, Best Off-Broadway Musical) tells the true-life terrible tale of the horrific 1924 murder committed by the notorious “thrill killers” Nathan Leopld and Richard Loeb. Their desire to commit the “perfect crime” was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 psychological crime thriller Rope. Christopher Bentivegna directs Eli Timm and John Fitzpatrick as Leopld and Loeb.
InFringe Fest is an independent, new New Orleans fringe festival occurring November 15-19 in the Marigny, Bywater and Arabi. With nearly 40 shows, there would seem to be something for everyone whether you like slapstick anarchism (Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Happyland Theater, 3126 Burgundy)), documentary theater (Postcards from Over the Edge dealing with New Orleans’ complex relationship with prostitution (AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude)), or a puppet folktale (Kate Culhane and the Dead Middle Man by the ever-inventive Pandora Gastelum (The Mudlark Public Theatre, 1200 Port St.)).
Other intriguing entries include–
–The Shop Around the Corner, an original adaptation of the Miklos Lazlos romantic comedy, reset to 1930s New Orleans. Performed in the classic radio theatre form, but updated with light blocking, props, and costumes for a viewing audience. Directed by Vatican Lokey for NOLA Voice Theatre (The Valiant Theatre & Lounge, 6621 St. Claude, Arabi)
–The Baroness Undressed, a Butoh-Burlesque-Biography based upon the unbelievable life of the infamous Iron Bird of Paradise, Baroness Michaela de Pontalba who breaks the fourth wall to tell the story of a brutal attack by her father-in-law. Writer/performer Diana E.H. Shortes debuts the newest incarnation of her solo work (The Tigermen Den, 3113 Royal St.)
–Transposing Omaha, a ‘lost’ play by legendary New Orleans poet Danny Kerwick, the inspiration for “Francis” in Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway. The Old Woman and the Old Man reflect, observed from the window by the Young Woman and the Young Man. Jennifer Growden directs a cast including Janet Shea & Roger Magendie (The Tigermen Den, 3113 Royal St.)
Plus, for the adventurous, many more!