I was on a date recently where we ended up discussing the topic of tackiness in theatre and film. We came to the conclusion that there are three different levels. There’s Good Tacky, which involves a production so blissfully aware of its own camp aesthetic that you are fully compelled to conga up the orchestra aisle with the actors as they head out into intermission. There’s Bad Tacky, which leaves a sour taste in the back of your mouth and a sore feeling of regret in your gut as you leave the auditorium. And then there’s Mortal Tackiness, wherein the experience of the show is such an imprisonment that you begin to develop symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Even if you temporarily find yourself swept up in the moment, at the end of the show when thousands of inflatable beach balls drop from the ceiling, you discover yourself wide awake but completely exhausted, having endured something completely and unforgivably bland.
With the new Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical, Escape to Margaritaville, we’re definitely beach balls deep in Mortal Tackiness.
The audience is encouraged early in Act I to sing along to “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)?” Because that permission is never subsequently revoked, the Parrotheads, as Buffett fans are known (who this show is distinctly aimed at) went as hard as they do with the sing-a-long throughout the show. These wildly enthusiastic folks were thrilled to be there. If only I connected to it as they did.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, with as much heart as you could possibly muster into a script that relies mostly on low-brow humor, the production feels slick and polished. Though the show is about taking it easy, nibbling on sponge cake, watching the sun bake all of these tourists covered in oil, the speedy efficiency of its staging and high-energy choreography is, by contrast, jarring.
The writing by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley relies on puns, references to pop culture, and lyrics pulled without context from Buffett songs. Literally, one character is searching for his lost shaker of salt the ENTIRE FIRST ACT. With the facile character work and ridiculous plot, the experience of the book of this musical is like having your eyelids removed and being forced to watch Two and a Half Men for the remainder of your life.
Our journey in Margaritaville begins with Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), an easy-going, confirmed bachelor, trying out a new song. He’s the lead singer of a hotel band and his hotel manager, a woman of color named Marley (Rema Webb) who speaks with a – sorry, let me check my notes here – Vague Caribbean Accent tells him to get to work. This week’s batch of vacationers will arrive for their stay on the beach shortly.
This leads to an odd montage that explains to us that Tully plucks a new blonde woman of his dreams every week from the arriving tourists, because he’s – sorry, notes again – Incredibly Sexy. At the end of each week, when the woman wants to stay in touch, he rejects them and tells them that this was just a vacation from reality, and that her feelings for him are not real. Charming.
That is until Rachel (Alison Luff), a gorgeous brunette scientist who is trying to – notes, last time, I promise – develop an engine that can run on potatoes (brilliant!), arrives on the island with her friend Tammy (Lisa Howard). You see, Tammy is getting married and this is her bachelorette party–a week in paradise with her best friend. Except, Tammy is on a diet because she’s getting married the day after they get home. Her fiancé, Chadd, has her on a restricted regime of sunflower seeds and carrot juice. Because the only way to fit into a wedding dress, which he somehow had altered to two sizes too small, is to crash diet until you conform to your man’s ideal vision of you.
Naturally, Rachel is also on the island to collect soil samples from the top of the volcano slumbering at its center. During a hike to the top of the volcano, Tully and his best friend, bartender Brick (Eric Petersen), tag along and flirt with the girls. Eventually they pair off in the exact way you expect them to. In a whirlwind montage, we are suddenly at the end of the One Week Tully Love Life Cycle. But all feelings are real this time. And just after Rachel leaves and Tully begins to feel sad, the volcano erupts. The rest of the plot is so bizarre and convoluted and oblivious to reality that it doesn’t bear mentioning.
Nolan, sings the hell out of the role and delivers on the requisite chill and charm for Tully. Luff’s lovely mezzo voice fills the cavernous Marquis. Petersen does his best clown sidekick and gets his laughs. And then there’s Lisa Fucking Howard. She deserves so much more than to play the fat best friend like she’s done countless times before. She is way too talented to be putting up with this too frequent marginalization.
And why do we keep tolerating this treatment of Howard and actors like her? Why are we still being subjected to lines like, “Tammy, how do you expect me to love you if you’re always going to be fat?” And why do we lose our minds when Tammy chows down on a cheeseburger, breaking her diet the night before her wedding? Why are we still relegating these stars to sidekick roles with their bodies played for laughs?
The show treats people of color in the same way. We don’t learn anything about these characters beyond surface level interests and their positions as workers in the hotel. A gay couple is also shoehorned in and made the brunt of the joke. In a world where gay people are craving appropriate mainstream representation, placing two gay men in an ensemble to clown around maintains our status as jesters to laugh at, not with. Pandering to these tropes – the fat friend, the boisterous employee of color, the queeny gay – is not representation. It is disregard for reality and truth, and it is not entertainment. It is as predictable as the harmonies that make up much of the vocal arrangements.
In the end, the buffet of Buffett music never succeeds in musical form. Many of his songs have been truncated or blended together into medleys, where they don’t work dramaturgically. Though they are well-sung, these songs cannot carry the show when the cockamamie storytelling gets in the way. Even Jimmy Buffett, who once shook my hand and announced to a crowd that I was his youngest fan, deserves so much more than this.
And yet, because this is Mortal Tackiness, you can still find yourself momentarily reveling in the Incredibly Sexy protagonist crooning about his beachfront life while the audience sings and chants along at their appointed time. But then you get bopped on the head with a beach ball, look at those around you living their best life and realize you’re not on their level. You’re back to reality, and it’s bitter. And what’s that taste on your tongue? It’s salt. (Salt! Salt! Salt!)