Breezy musical is paradise for parrotheads

Cary Ginell reviews Margaritaville at HSAC

“Escape to Margaritaville,” the jukebox musical onstage through Sunday at High Street Arts Center in Moorpark, is just what you would expect from Jimmy Buffett: a frothy, carefree romp through a tropical paradise with a plot that has the depth of a tidepool.


Buffett has built a cottage industry around the popularity of his breezy 1977 hit “Margaritaville,” releasing similar-sounding Caribbean-flavored story songs, opening restaurants and launching a chain of hotels.


In 2017, playwrights Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley shoehorned a bevy of Buffett’s most popular tunes into a new musical about Tully, a part-time entertainer on an island in the Caribbean who falls for Rachel, a female scientist who wants to use potatoes and volcanic soil to solve the energy crisis. The musical received mostly negative reviews, one of which called it “syrupy enough to taste sort of like a Broadway show.”

“Escape to Margaritaville,” which is geared more toward Buffett fans than theater aficionados, is the kind of musical where the audience hums the score as they go into the theater. There is nothing profound or poetic about the story or the songs; it’s just a fun, amiable show that follows the formula of other so-called “pop-sicals” created around a musical artist’s repertoire.

The prospect Garcia and O’Malley faced involved creating characters and situations out of the disparate story songs from Buffett’s catalog. For instance, Rachel brings along a hot-to-trot gal pal named Tammy who is looking to lose weight, thus creating a reason to use Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” somewhere in the story. Other songs, such as “Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Son of a Son of a Sailor” and “Come Monday” all found convenient places to be shoehorned into the script once Garcia and O’Malley gave the story a little tug in that direction.

The result is a Western hemisphere version of “Mamma Mia!” in which Buffett minions, known as “parrotheads,” can anticipate and sing along with their favorite songs. And those fans came out in force, decked out in Hawaiian shirts with plastic plumerias in their hair, laughing at jokes that are only mildly funny and cheering wildly at every lurid sexual reference, of which there were many.

One must, however, give credit to producers Kathee Boyer and Ken Rayzor not only for trying something relatively new, but mostly for using a live band onstage. In the past, High Street’s theater has been too small to house a proper pit band and so all the musicals performed there have used pre-recorded tracks. But Zach Spencer’s upstage band is the best part of the show, led by Spencer’s slick keyboard work and Scott Mundy’s always astute musicianship behind the drums.

If you can ignore the drama free story, the cast members are likable and perform their parts well, led by winning performances from Brennen Klitzner as Tully and Rachel Fischer as Rachel. Klitzner does a fine job panto-miming on the guitar (played in the band by Gabe Gonzalez) while Fischer, making her High Street debut, sings beautifully and is outstanding as her sensible namesake who initially resists Tully’s romantic overtures (a la Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls”) but eventually falls for his innate charm. This thin plotline is padded by an exploding volcano, a tap dance number that comes from out of nowhere, and lots of naughty PG-13 sex jokes.

The rest of the cast performs well, especially the obligatory second banana romantic relationship between Tammy (Taylor

Bass) and a wisecracking bartender named Brick (Jack Rogers). The cast also features some embarrassing over-the-top stereotypes: hotel owner Marley, played with an affected Jamaican accent by Debbie Runge, and elderly beach bum J. D., played by Runge’s husband, Kit. The large ensemble cast is highlighted by a funny cameo turned in by Mars Tobin as a lawyer advising Tully on a budding singing career.

Photo courtesy of Barbara Mazeika