Broadway Review: BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE MUSICAL (Winter Garden)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on August 4, 2023

in Theater-New York


Ever go on the original Star Tours ride at Disneyland? You’re seated in some kind of space ship/tour bus that is piloted by a loveable but incompetent (of course) robot, who almost crashes the ship at lift-off. Once in space, the ride whisks you through the Star Wars universe, replete with navigating a threatening asteroid field and jumping to light speed. Afterwards, you feel as if you’ve actually spent some time within a Star Wars movie.

Casey Likes
Liana Hunt, Amber Ardolino, Daryl Tofa, Casey Likes and Hugh Coles

And fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, that’s the feeling one gets while watching the musicalized version of the mid-80s movie blockbuster Back to the Future, which opened last night at the Winter Garden Theater. Packed with state of the art stagecraft technology – Back to the Future: The Musical convincingly places the audience inside that famously reconstituted Delorean. When it travels through time, we travel through time. If you actually remember 1985, there’s perhaps an unintended, sobering, meta-experience of the show when you realize the much-ballyhooed future the heroes are trying to get back to is, in reality, almost forty years ago. However, the sobriety doesn’t last long as director John Rando has ably put together a fast moving, upbeat, surreal, high-kicking, really fun Big Broadway Musical that never takes itself very seriously. Add in some catchy tunes, top notch performers, a book that doesn’t veer too far from the beloved screenplay, bubbly choreography, that car, those effects and a hilarious Roger Bart as Doc Brown and Back to the Future: The Musical turns out to be a fun, escapist time at the theater. Or the movies. Or Disneyland. I’m not quite sure but it’s fun nonetheless. Based on the boffo success of the musical’s current West End production alone, it could be traversing time on Broadway for some time.

Daryl Tofa, Nathaniel Hackmann, Will Branner, Casey Likes & Hugh Coles
Merritt David Janes and Casey Likes

In 1985, high-schooler Marty McFly dreams of rock and roll stardom but is deemed a loser just like his much-bullied dad, George McFly. Trapped in the small Mid-western town where his parents also grew up, Marty feels he has no future and sees no way out of his angsty predicament. He’s friendly with a middle-aged and very eccentric scientist, Doc Brown, who has been experimenting with time travel. Also, the city hall clock tower was struck by lightening in 1955 rendering the clock inoperable for the last thirty years. (Why no one thought to just get the clock repaired is perhaps a bigger mystery than time travel.)

Casey Likes and Mikaela Secada
Roger Bart & Casey Likes

Late one night while helping the Doc run tests on his hybrid time machine/sports car, Marty accidentally activates the time travel mechanism and is transported back in time to his hometown, thirty years earlier. Unfortunately, the Delorean has used up its plutonium power source so Marty can’t return to 1985. After unexpectedly encountering his future mom and dad, now his same age, a desperate and confused Marty tracks down a much younger Doc Brown. Once convinced of the truth of Marty’s story, Doc sets out to help Marty return to the future. The only caveat is that Marty can have no contact with anyone in 1955 other than Doc Brown or it may change the course of history and Marty’s family (oops). Will Marty be able to connect his now teenage parents even though he, not his father, is the object of his unsuspecting mother’s affections? Will he return to 1985? Or will both Marty and his future get trapped in the past forever?

Casey Likes and the Cast
Casey Likes

Rando infuses the production with a very broad comic sensibility. The concept of subtlety had apparently not yet been invented in either 1955 or 1985, at least based on Rando’s over-the-top direction of all performances. Turns out to be a smart choice because that broadness, high energy and whiff of unreality allows anything to happen onstage. After all, it’s a musical about a working time machine so grounding is not a big priority. The priority is fun and the show delivers all kinds of joy with its multiplicity of surreal, funny and genuinely touching moments. Because the show plays with time, implied questions about the reality of time itself lurk below the mile-a-minute surface of the performance. This allows for some clever anachronisms and knowing winks to the audience along the way, including a surprise appearance of 60s-era Ann-Margret-looking chorus girls, all sporting 70s-era Farrah Fawcett hair while dancing in 1985. Sure, why not?

Casey Likes, Liana Hunt and the Cast

Musically, the show sounds like a cross between The Producers, Hairspray, 80s pop and rock ‘n roll – with a little gospel and R&B thrown in to boot. Huey Lewis’s hit song Power of Love is held over from the film but may have been utilized better there. It holds a prime spot in the play yet no major action in this stage version is really motivated by Love. However, it’s performed well and the audience loved it so perhaps that’s what matters in this play/movie/thrill ride. There’s also a pronounced overall theme to the show of “dreamers following their dreams” that regrettably plays like the over-used cliché it is.

Roger Bart and the Cast

However, Roger Bart’s Doc Brown has so much fun milking jokes and maybe throwing in an ad lib or two that we have a ball right along with him. The major characters from the film have made it to the boards and, while their forms onstage are true to the movie, the actors have been able to mostly make the characters their own. Casey Likes nicely inhabits Michael J. Fox’s film physicality and is a great singer and very strong performer, imbuing his Marty with an almost palpable fear of his own mediocrity. Nathaniel Hackmann’s Biff is a real meathead, yet his revealing baritone gives some fleeting insight into why he’s such an unabashed bully. Liana Hunt is a charming, strong and sexual Lorraine, Marty’s (future) mom. She’s a wonderful singer and her appealing performance inherently asks why fifties mores were so eager to limit engaging young women like Lorraine.

Jelani Remy and the Cast
Casey Likes, Liana Hunt and the Cast

Jelani Remy, the only African-American principal in the cast, is a knock-out as town mayor Goldie Wilson. It’s a bit odd, however, considering the acknowledgement the show gives towards the limitations of the 50s that book writer Bob Gale (from his screenplay with Robert Zemekis) and song writers Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard write Remy’s Goldie as merely a functionary of 50s storytelling. Remy’s big number is a rousing, gospel-flavored song titled “Gotta Start Somewhere.” It’s sung in response to an insult about Goldie’s ambitions from his racist malt shop boss (“A colored man as mayor? Ha!”). As Goldie belts (of course) this toe-tapping tune, his malt shop uniform transforms and his broom, apron and cap are now in dazzling gold lamé. (Why only the signifiers of subservience are highlighted in gold is another one of those, you know, mysteries.) The song’s real purpose, however, is to encourage the self-doubting Marty. Having propped up the story’s young protagonist, Goldie happily sweeps his way off-stage to thunderous applause, determined to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Remy is a brilliant performer and deserves the thunder – but perhaps a little more thought from the creative team about this sequence in context may have been useful.

Casey Likes
Casey Likes

So, of course, there’s that car and the creative wizardry of Video Designer Finn Ross, Illusion Designer Chris Fisher, Lighting Designers Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone, Sound Designer Gareth Owen and Scenic Designer Tim Hatley and effects house TwinsFX that bring it to life. There’s the athletic, comedic and beautiful Choreography of Chris Bailey, which spans decades. There’s the authentic and colorful Costume Design, also by Hatley.

Casey Likes and Hugh Coles
Hugh Coles, Liana Hunt and the Cast

But the heart of the show is the impressive and moving performance of Hugh Coles as Marty’s father, George McFly. Coles expertly manages to fulfill all the heighted style, comedy and vocals the piece demands. However, he also endears his George with such an open vulnerability and extreme desire to retreat that his slow process of coming out of his shell is very touching while also very funny. When he finally stands up for himself, the moment garners a well-earned sense of victory – for both George and the audience.

Roger Bart
Casey Likes and the Cast

I’d be stating alternate facts if I said I wasn’t concerned about Broadway becoming just another place where movie studios can exploit their properties in yet another commercial format. The story structure often remains the same and provides a semi-immersive experience that one could also get by going on the amusement park ride version of that IP. But is that theater? Musical theater, in particular? I don’t know the answer. What I know is, while it’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein (or Lin Manual Miranda) Back to the Future: The Musical does a remarkable job of blending film and theater methodologies so neither form suffers in the translation. Actually, they mostly complement each other (Doc’s imaginative climb up the clock tower stairs being a prime example). And the show doesn’t ask much of the audience other than to just sit down and have fun. And nothing wrong with just having fun – be it with a movie, musical or amusement park ride.

photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Winter Garden Theatre
open run
Tues and Thurs at 7, Wed at 7:30, Fri and Sat at 8, Wedy and Sa; Sun at 3
for tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit Telecharge or BackToTheFutureMusical

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