By Sheri and Josh Flanders
Sheri and Josh are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com. The following conversation was spawned by attending Broadway in Chicago’s production of “Escape to Margaritaville,” the new musical featuring the songs of iconic singer-songwriter-author Jimmy Buffett.
Josh: Anyone who has been to a “Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefers” concert, from first-timer to life-long “Parrothead,” knows that his shows are a love fest between Jimmy, his music, and the audience; a simultaneous celebration of island life with all that entails. So it’s no surprise that his musical Escape to Margaritaville, in a pre-Broadway engagement at the Oriental Theatre, captures the same nostalgia and celebration as his live performances and brings the audience along for this joyous ride.
Sheri: I have always enjoyed Buffet’s music, but I would not call myself a “Parrothead,” as I have never been to a concert. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised at how many of his songs I knew. And when I told my parents that I was going to see this show, they were totally stoked for me. Apparently, I may have been listening to Buffet as a baby. The best thing about this show is that your lack of knowledge of the Buffet canon does not hinder your enjoyment. Escape to Margaritaville is for everyone!
Josh: Writer Mike O’Malley (Survivor’s Remorse, Shameless) says that Buffett fans will see the work that he and co-writer Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope) did, seamlessly weaving the Buffett songs we know and love with a few new songs Jimmy wrote for this show, all connecting together to tell a love story.
“I think if you’ve never heard a Jimmy Buffett song it would make sense,” O’Malley says, adding “I think it would be even more rewarding, because you won’t even be thinking about it, you will just be watching the play.”
Director and Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley says he found inspiration seeing Jimmy in concert. “[Jimmy] was not respectful of his own lyrics…he’s in the moment, recreating the song for what’s happening in the room, but always respectful of the chorus. That’s a great tool for us to know that we can be playful and tailor a lot of these verses to the story we’re telling as long as we land back in the chorus.”
Sheri: Hardcore musical fans will find Escape to Margaritaville lacking in character development and depth. However, I feel that this show is a gateway drug for an audience who might be wary of attending a musical in the first place. It’s very comforting for the uninitiated to walk into their first musical and hear familiar songs; to watch relatable characters wearing hockey jerseys, resembling real people, speaking casually as real people do every day – combined with a few razzle dazzle dance numbers and stunning set, lighting design and fun aerial stunts. And just maybe, someone’s grumpy, football watching dad will leave the show tapping his toe and consider buying Hamilton tickets.
The writers wisely tap into the ethos of the Buffetverse to give fans what they want. Escaping to Margaritaville is about checking out of society; thumbing your nose to the man, chucking aside ambition and being the laziest rebel possible – if only for one wild sexy tropical vacation. It’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back – Parrothead Edition. It’s an easy hedonism that doesn’t hinge on income or class; an escape that is available to anyone who can afford a pair of sunglasses, flip-flops, a bikini, a drink with an umbrella in it and some good tunes. In this economy, a tropical vacation is the closest that most of us plebeians are going to get to paradise in our lifetimes.
Josh: Jimmy’s natural give and take is apparent the moment he arrives on the red carpet at opening night. He takes time for reporters and fans alike, stopping to take selfies with anyone who makes him smile on the way into the theater. This idea that his fans are family permeates everything he does, and this musical is no exception, engaging the audience even before the show begins.
Fans will find themselves rediscovering these songs in the context of this new story and appreciating the small changes they made to either bring these songs in line with the story, or to make them more family friendly. (Don’t worry, Parrotheads, they still sing “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” with hilarious audience participation.)
Sheri: The audience participation is well-done overall and I really think it is a clever way to include the cheekily naughty fan-favorite “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” into the plot. Unfortunately, though, the theme of men badgering women about sex is leaned upon excessively. A warning: Escape to Margaritaville isn’t going to win any awards for feminism. It’s disappointing to see the hoary trope of the “Type-A businesswoman that just needs to get laid” in a modern musical, without complexity, commentary or satire.
Does Escape to Margaritaville pass the Bechdel Test? (Does a work feature two female characters, who talk to each other, about something other than a man?) I doubt it, but if it does; only barely. Thankfully, due to the talent and incredibly genuine likability of the actors, we don’t absorb the full weight of the grossness of some of the more questionable lines. Several of the back and forth exchanges remind me of 80’s sitcom zingers from a show like Married With Children. Though intended to be lighthearted and playful, these cliched “battle of the sexes” exchanges seem like relics in 2017.
However, that isn’t to say that the show is without any feminist merit whatsoever. Not every woman embraces her feminism on the same points on the spectrum. There are absolutely women in the world like Tammy (Lisa Howard); bold, sassy women, self-actualized and taking charge in most aspects of her life, yet still dating terrible, sexist, meathead men. Hers is the story that begs for more development, as her journey is the most satisfying of all of the characters. I very much enjoy seeing imperfect, realistic depictions of women grappling with sexism, rather than one-note heroic idealism. Feminism Lite is amazingly still satisfying and certainly better than no feminism at all.
Josh: I agree. This is not a deep, moving story with complex characters. If you can overlook that simplicity, Escape to Margaritaville is a feel-good night out that will help you forget the world for a couple hours.
While it is essentially a love story, Escape to Margaritaville is also a story about following dreams. As choreographer Kelly Devine points out, this musical asks the big questions: “What is your dream? Are you going to follow your dream? And what are you waiting for?” At its core it is a fun Dead Poets Society with palm trees, with “seize the day” as the central take away. And like a Buffett concert, it’s not going to challenge you or solve world problems, but it will uplift you enough to “gather ye coconuts while ye may”.
Broadway in Chicago and producers Frank Marshall, Mindy Rich, Anita Waxman, and Beth Williams present “Escape to Margaritaville” at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, through December 2. More information and tickets are available here.