The creators of Back to the Future: The Musical weren’t taking any chances.
The production, newly arrived on Broadway after a London engagement that snagged a 2022 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, begins with the stirring main theme of the 1985 film’s score, garnering loud cheers from the audience. The book, with some minor exceptions, recreates the screenplay beat for beat and in some cases line for line. And the performances hew closely to those of the movie’s lead actors, with Hugh Coles, playing Marty McFly’s father George, imitating Crispin Glover so closely that it’s hard to tell whether it’s tribute or appropriation.
None of this is surprising, considering that original co-screenwriter Bob Gale has written the musical’s book and original composer Alan Silvestri, in collaboration with Glen Ballard (Ghost, Jagged Little Pill), its score. What is surprising is how effective and damn fun it all is.
It was easy to be cynical about this latest screen-to-stage musical adaptation, considering the torrent of similarly unoriginal shows that in many cases have crashed and burned on Broadway in recent years. And truth be told, Back to the Future: The Musical, despite that Olivier Award, doesn’t exactly break any new creative ground. Even the show’s fans, and there will be many, are unlikely to play the cast recording more than once, since the best song of the evening is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” with Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love” a close second.
What gets everyone the most excited, of course, is the car — the souped-up, scientifically enhanced time- traveling DeLorean that figured so prominently in the film’s plot. Needless to say, the vehicle gets the biggest ovation of the evening when it shows up onstage, and the show’s finale, in which it takes flight over the audience (with an additional surprise that won’t be revealed here), sends the crowd out on a massive high. It’s not the first flying car to appear on Broadway, but it leaves the one in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the dust.
For those unfamiliar with the smash hit film and its two sequels (all five or six of you), the story concerns teenager Marty McFly (Casey Likes, recently seen on Broadway recreating another film role in Almost Famous), who inadvertently goes back 30 years in time to 1955 thanks to the time travel machine created by his eccentric scientist friend Doc Brown (Roger Bart, channeling Christopher Lloyd but finding his own hilarious shtick).
There, he encounters the younger version of Doc, who warns him that he’s in danger of canceling his own existence because his presence in the past is altering the future. Specifically, he has to make sure that the younger version of his mother Lorraine (Liana Hunt), who has developed a crush on her own son, instead falls in love with his future father. The task isn’t easy, since the chronically shy and awkward George can’t even muster the courage to ask her to the school dance and is constantly being harassed by the bullying Biff (Nathaniel Hackmann) and his cronies.
It’s a terrifically fun and amusing story that works nearly as well onstage as it did on film, although the original songs, as is so often the case with these adaptations, mainly come across as superfluous. Not that they’re all that bad, mind you. Some of them are quite catchy, such as the 1950s girl group homage “Something About That Boy,” the inspirational “Gotta Start Somewhere” and the amusing “21st Century,” the last performed by Doc and the ensemble with a sort of Devo-like thing happening. The musical numbers, featuring lively choreography by Chris Bailey, are generally rousing but, as you can probably tell by the song titles, the lyrics are strictly of the generic variety.
Where the show pulls out the stops is with its technical elements, including dazzling projections, special effects (Chris Fisher is credited as “Illusion Designer”) and innovative sound and lighting designs to give the production the feel of a, no surprise here, theme-park attraction. But as Broadway-theme-park-attraction shows go — and there have been plenty of them — this one really impresses, with the sides and ceiling of the cavernous Winter Garden tricked out with lighting and video projections that make you feel as if you’re inside a giant computer.
Director John Rando, no stranger to stage musical comedy (Urinetown, Mr. Saturday Night, The Wedding Singer), gives the fast-paced proceedings a necessarily light, farcical air that produces many genuinely funny moments (and some groan-inducing ones as well). The hardworking actors do their best to live up to their film predecessors, which in some cases isn’t easy. Who, after all, could be as effortlessly appealing and charismatic as the young Michael J. Fox? But Casey Likes lives up to his name by being thoroughly likable and energetic, while Bart is a consistent hoot as the mad scientist with a warm heart. Hunt is appealing as the young woman with the hots for her future son, and Jelani Remy delivers an exuberant turn as Goldie Wilson, the role beefed up from the film. But the standout is Coles, the sole British holdover from the London production, who somehow manages to convey Crispin Glover’s total weirdness while making his character goofily endearing as well.
Back to the Future: The Musical should more accurately be titled Back to the Past with its slavish adherence to its cinematic inspiration. But when it’s done with this much spirit, it’s hard to complain. And even if you don’t like the show, you’ll love the nostalgia-inducing merchandise for sale in the lobby.
Venue: Winter Garden Theatre (New York)
Cast: Roger Bart, Casey Likes, Hugh Coles, Liana Hunt, Jelani Remy, Nathaniel Hackmann, Merritt David Janes, Mikaela Secada, Amber Ardolino, Will Branner, Victoria Byrd, Brendon Chan, Kevin Curtis, Nick Drake, Samuel Gerber, Marc Heitzman, Kimberly Immanuel, Joshua Kenneth Allen Johnson, Hannah Kevitt, JJ Niemann, Becca Petersen, Emma Pittman, Jonalyn Saxer, Blakely Slaybaugh, Gabi Stapula, and Daryl Tofa
Book: Bob Gale
Music & lyrics: Alan Silvestri, Glen Ballard
Director: John Rando
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Designer: Tim Hatley
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Lighting designers: Tim Lutkin, Hugh Vanstone
Video designer: Finn Ross
Illusion designer: Chris Fisher
Orchestrations: Ethan Popp, Bryan Crook
Presented by Colin Ingram, Donovan Mannato, Tom Viertel/ Steven Baruch/ Marc Routh/ Richard Frankel, Hunter Arnold, Playing Field, Robert L. Hutt, Ivy Herman/Hallee Adelman, Teresa Tsai, Bob McLynn, Gavin Kalin, Kimberly Magarro, Crush Music, Universal Theatrical Group, Sony Masterworks, Augury, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, in association with Neil Gooding Productions, Ricardo Marques, James L. Nederlander