Back To The Future: The Musical made me very nostalgic for that great time-traveling ’80s movie, but Peggy Sue Got Married isn’t available on any of my streaming services.
That’s not to disparage the classic 1985 Back to the Future film starring Michael J. Fox – a charmer of the time-travel genre that enjoyed a brief vogue capped by Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989 – but the BTFM musical stage adaptation opening tonight on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre is so bombastically intent on justifying its existence that it bullies away whatever warm nostalgia we might have for the movie.
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With a cast directed (by John Rando) to exaggerate every joke, gesture and facial expression – only the always reliable Roger Bart, who plays the eccentric genius inventor Doc Brown, has the chops and instincts to nail the over-the-topness, just as he did in Mel Brooks’ The Producers [Editor’s Note/Disclaimer: Bart is the nephew of Deadline columnist Peter Bart] – Back To The Future gradually settles in to an enjoyable-enough thrill park ride, with its special effects, video projections and lighting finally paying off in the final 20 minutes of its nearly three-hour running time.
Part of the blame for the mostly lackluster experience falls to the music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, a generic-sounding pastiche of ’80s and ’50s rock styles that fails to capture the excitement or freshness of either era. The music is essentially the aural equivalent of Tim Hatley’s theme-party costume designs and Chris Bailey’s predictable choreography. Hatley also serves as the show’s scenic designer, though his contributions on that end, hardly slight, are overpowered by the dazzling lighting design (Tim Lutkin & Hugh Vanstone) and Finn Ross’ vital video design (that time-traveling DeLorean would get nowhere fast without Ross’ projections; Chris Fisher is credited with Illusion Design, and though details on his contributions aren’t specified, the show has its share of eye-popping trickery).
Of course, any iteration of Back To The Future is going to lean heavily on its Marty McFly – the role made a superstar of Fox, who’d already conquered television with Family Ties – and that’s a big burden to place on any young actor. Casey Likes, who was by far the best part of last season’s lamentable screen-to-stage adaptation of Almost Famous, very nearly overcomes Rando’s blustering inclinations, the actor’s easygoing charisma in Cameron Crowe ’70s-era rock fable having a tough time emerging from all the gesticulating and facial mugging Rando seems to require of the cast. (Nowhere on stage is that overacting more pronounced than with Hugh Coles, sticking like flypaper to each and every vocal eccentricity of the film’s Crispin Glover in his portrayal of Marty’s spineless dad George while adding some bizarrely exaggerated movements that owe more than a small debt to London’s panto tradition; his West End performance earned him an Olivier nomination).
The musical’s plot – as well as ’80s era jokes about Calvin Klein, Ronald Reagan and, of course, John DeLorean’s one and only claim to automotive infamy – remains largely unchanged from the movie (a wedged-in joke about kale and a sideways wink to Covid notwithstanding). High schooler Marty McFly, son of the unhappily married milquetoast George and tipsy Lorraine (a lovely voiced Liana Hunt), becomes inadvertently unstuck in time when, in 1985 while visiting his friend, the town oddball inventor Doc Brown (Bart) he gets behind the wheel of a DeLorean jerry-rigged with plutonium – no mention is made of the film’s Libyan terrorists – and drives right into 1955. Same town, same high school, but now mom and dad are teenagers and about to embark on a lifetime of disappointment.
The usual time-warp complications ensue: As a young Doc explains, the slightest disruption of history by Marty could spell future disaster, which means the young Lorraine’s immediate infatuation with new boy Marty could preclude her marriage to George and the very lives of Marty and his siblings (Amber Ardolino, Daryl Tofa).
Aside from those plutonium-providing terrorists, the film’s details are mostly present and accounted for: the lightning-struck clock tower, George’s high school bully, Calvin Klein underwear, and, in the movie’s best scene, Marty’s guitar performance of “Johnny B. Goode” at the all-important 1955 high school dance when he stuns everyone by sliding from Chuck Berry riffs to Jimi Hendrix wails. Likes delivers the rock god moves and the verbal punchline – “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it” – to audience delight.
Still, nothing on stage here measures up to the screen version, except the obvious: The live special effects, most notably a final sequence in which 1955 Doc climbs to the top of that clock tower during a lightning storm, with Marty speeding the DeLorean through town. The lighting and video projections that have so far provided some amusement come to fruition here, and Back To The Future: The Musical finally and fully justifies its transition from screen to stage. A coda, which will bring to mind a certain Phantom chandelier or maybe a Saigon helicopter, can’t help but seem a tad anti-climactic.
As for the music, the Silvestri-Ballard score offers a few songs that are more than serviceable, including Doc’s suitably sentimental “For The Dreamers,” the de rigueur gospel number “Gotta Start Somewhere” (well performed by Jelani Remy as a 1955 janitor turned 1985 mayor) and “Teach Him A Lesson,” the best of the musical’s comedy songs, performed by bully Biff (Nathaniel Hackmann) and his toadies (Tofa and Will Branner) with “Gee, Officer Krupke” defiance.
Safe to say, though, that even the best of the new songs can’t compete with Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Goode” (what can?), the gorgeous doo-wop gem “Earth Angel” and even Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love.” No matter, really. With a show like Back To The Future: The Musical, comparisons are, like resistance, futile. And your kids are gonna love it.
Title: Back To The Future: The Musical
Venue: Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre
Director: John Rando
Book: Bob Gale (Based on the Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment film written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale)
Music & Lyrics: Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard
Principal Cast: Roger Bart, Casey Likes, Hugh Coles, Liana Hunt, Jelani Remy, Nathaniel Hackmann
Running time: 2 hr 45 min (including intermission)
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