Yogi Berra said the future ain’t what it used to be. We know how he feels.
The Broadway arrival of the West End hit “Back to the Future” continues the march of Hollywood brand extensions to the musical stage. The production, based on the 1985 film hit that spun off two sequels, arrives with a flourish: LED lights flashing, sound system blaring and special effects blazing.
All that dazzle might satisfy film fans looking to relive signature moments, but for others seeking re-imaginings more than repeats, “Back to the Future” will seem more fitting for a theme park than Broadway. Touring venues, however, may be more welcoming, with less demanding audiences looking for the comfort of familiar titles and the promise of spectacle. With “Back to the Future” already selling great in Gotham, only time — and the box office — will reveal the musical’s Broadway future.
The musical mirrors the film’s plot, including karaoke imitations of original stars Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, who should get some sort of billing since the show’s headliners, Casey Likes (as time-traveling teen Marty McFly) and Roger Bart (as mad scientist Doc Brown), pretty much duplicate the idiosyncratic originals with little spin of their own.
But it’s all about the car anyway. The souped-up DeLorean that takes Marty from the Reagan era to 1955 blasts back with the effective — albeit evergreen — technique of fast-moving background projections. And the car’s re-appearance in the finale is indeed surprising and impressive. (No spoilers here.)
Also cleverly rendered is a climactic clock tower scene set during a lightning storm. Giving it added propulsion is not a new musical number but rather the film’s rousing underscoring by Alan Silvestri who, with Glen Ballard, wrote the musical’s so-so new songs. (The show gets some outside help from the established period hits from the film, such as “Johnny B. Goode” and the upbeat closer “Power of Love.”
Helping to deliver a (road-)tour de force are designer Tim Hadley with Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone on lights, Finn Ross on video, Gareth Owen on sound and Chris Fisher on illusions. But beyond its two time-traveling rides, this musical trip is on auto-pilot with conventional musical tropes and an exposition-crammed narrative that rarely veers from the film. (The book of the musical is by Bob Gale, who co-created the movie with co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis.)
The plot — and show — finally gets going when Marty gets into that DeLorean and is accidentally taken back 30 years to the time when his parents first fell in love. Marty’s future existence is jeopardized when his now-teen mom (Liana Hunt) falls not for Marty’s dad but instead for this strange new kid in town.
Much of the show’s humor once again comes from the comic ick of incest, along with out-of-time references from 1955 and 1985 (plus one amusing shout-out to 2020).
The show’s few off-ramps from the film are short-lived: a sweet number in which Marty teaches his dad how to be cool; a bland ballad for Marty as he pines for his ’80s girlfriend (Mikaela Secada); and a wistful song by Doc (“For the Dreamers”) that’s destined to be a graduation day staple. However, the script could have done without turning the 1955 dad (Hugh Coles) into a peeping tom. It even gives Marty the creeps.
There are a few practical changes for the stage, too. The shoot-out with the Libyans is replaced by a plutonium mishap, and the dog is gone, too.
Because the incident-filled plot needs to move forward as quickly as possible, any deepening of character or relationships is fleeting at best. Who is Marty, anyway, other than a kid from a family of losers who likes to play guitar? And why do Marty and this strange old guy have such a tight bond in the first place?
A holdover from London, Coles’ comically loose-limbed George McFly takes Crispin Glover’s eccentric portrayal as Marty’s dad and doubles down unnervingly on the spasms and hee-haws. As school bully Biff Tanner, Nathanial Hackmann echoes the dumb-lug bit. As directed by John Rando, everyone else plays broadly, too, mugging freely and even upstaging shamelessly.
Likes — who showed considerable promise in another film-to-musical adaptation, “Almost Famous” — is anchored to Fox’s persona, down to the vocal rasp and tics. Bart, who originated the stage role in London, has a touch more freedom with his kooky-genius riffs. Oddly enough, Jelani Remi as the ’80s mayor/’50s janitor — a minor character in the film — gets the biggest hand with his rousing “Gotta Start Somewhere.”
But with the frequent breaking of the fourth wall and the milking of some meta moments, you wonder what exactly the show’s aiming to be: a self-aware joke for fans or a thrill ride with sincerity.
In a story that hearkens back to 1955, you could wish this musical’s creators had considered what made musical theater so great in that golden era. Perhaps they might have crafted something more fresh and tuneful, with goosebump moments that come not from hydraulics but from theatrical know-how. Sometimes looking at the past with fresh eyes can lead to a new road forward, but with “Back to the Future,” time just stands still.