Halfway to Paradise

The title track of Jimmy Buffett's 1980 Coconut Telegraph album busts gossips who "can't keep nothin' under their hat/You can hear 'em on the coconut telegraph sayin' who did dis and dat." Last September when Coconut Grove Playhouse producing artistic director Arnold Mittelman announced that he would present a world premiere by the rock musician and his theatrical collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Herman Wouk, the coconut telegraph kicked into high gear. As ecstatic Buffett fans rushed to update Websites and secure tickets to the musical based on Wouk's 1965 novel Don't Stop the Carnival, theater insiders dished the project's birth pains: technical rehearsals in which cast members dodged colliding scenery only to be trapped on the malfunctioning turntable on which the set revolves, early previews burdened with a two-hour first act, and last-minute dismissals of the show's sound technicians. So it comes as something of a surprise that the $1.2 million Broadway-bound Mardi Gras has surmounted its out-of-town tryout ordeals, lighting up the Coconut Grove Playhouse's stage with old-time razzle-dazzle. Director/choreographer David H. Bell's fluid parade of splashy sets, jubilant dances, eye-popping costumes, and star turns by a frenetic cast of 28 provides an exciting party that sweeps you along -- a party, however, that's maddeningly difficult to remember the day after.

Festival day on the Caribbean island of Kinja is already in full swing as the curtain rises and Governor Sanders (winningly played with dignity and wise resignation by Laparee Young) leads stiltwalkers and carnival dancers in the opening number, "The Legend of Norman Paperman." The song recounts the story of a Broadway publicist who left the Manhattan rat race to run a hotel, only to find himself stuck in a maze of island custom and bureaucracy. While "Legend" sets up the remainder of the production as a flashback to 1959, it also establishes the show's moral: "Chasing illusions can get quite confusin'/And Heaven can turn into Hell."

Just after Norman (Tony Award-winner Michael Rupert) and his money man Lester Atlas (Josh Mostel) arrive to inspect the Gulf Reef Club before buying it, Norman recognizes luscious tenant "Iris Tramm" (Sandy Edgerton) as Janet West, a.k.a. the Red Flame, a blacklisted communist movie star. A boozing Iris has retreated to her Gulf Reef bungalow, which she shares with a girl's best friend -- a German shepherd marvelously represented by a puppet. While Norman's wife Henny (Susan Dawn Carson) resignedly closes up their New York City apartment, the ex-theatrical press agent makes a play for Iris as she helps him contend with earthquakes, broken cisterns, temperamental water pumps, and an escaped lunatic handyman named Hippolyte (Aaron Cimadevilla).

Buffett's Caribbean rhythms, infectiously beaten out by local legends Iko-Iko, work with Dex Edwards's twirling set pieces, Susan E. Mickey's terrifically tropical and perfectly period costumes, and Jack Gaugan's worthy-of-a-Key West-sunset lighting to place Kinja on the musical-theater map somewhere between Jamaica and Brigadoon. The songs indicate the island's coordinates: Norman learns island politics to a calypso beat, as Senator Pullman, snazzily played by C.E. Smith, explains "Kinja Rules"; "Carnival Day/Jungle Drums" pinpoints the partying latitude; and even Kinja's ruling class describes itself in terms of geography in "Up on the Hill." Then again, three of the musical's best moments forgo island views entirely, emphasizing character insights instead: As Lester tangos to the self-analyzing "Just an Old Truth Teller," he demonstrates that Manhattan, like the waters around the tropical island, teems with sharks; Henny's heart-tugging "The Key to My Man" brings home the consequences of Norman's career change; and the moving duet "Who Are We Trying to Fool" puts a human love story on the stage -- finally -- as Norman and Iris battle their feelings for each other.

Mostel, Carson, Ruppert, and Edgerton are all first-rate and technically polished, but without the support of character-driven songs or a focused book, they seldom touch our emotions. Wouk's script doesn't put enough emphasis on the Henny/Norman/Iris romantic triangle; in fact, the love interest in his old-fashioned musical turns out to be the island. Incredibly, in another example of the show's preference for Kinja's trappings over its people, the hotel's finicky pump receives as much exposition as Iris's troubled past. Then there's the problem of Buffett's unmemorable score, which provides neither a hummable show tune nor a pop song sporting a hook strong enough on which to hang a crossover hit.

Buffett has recorded more than two dozen records, and in the process has parlayed a tropical state of mind into a gold-laden pop-culture El Dorado called Margaritaville. It occurred to me long ago that he has a gift for writing compelling narrative songs ("He Went to Paris"), revealing character studies ("A Pirate Looks at 40"), and yearning ballads ("Come Monday") that wouldn't be out of place in a stage musical. As for Wouk, he's hardly a theatrical newcomer. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Caine Mutiny (1952) and acclaimed for his novels The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, and Marjorie Morningstar, he took the Broadway plunge with the short-lived political drama The Traitor (1949), the mildly successful comedy Nature's Way (1957), and the 1954 hit The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (adapted from his novel).

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