I’m old enough to remember that when you wanted to see a summer movie you had to go to a movie theater. Now you can hit Broadway for a musicalized “experience” based on IP of years past: Shrek, Ghost, Urban Cowboy, Legally Blonde, etc. Flying in from the West End (which never met a movie it didn’t love to adapt) we now have Back to the Future at the Winter Garden. I saw a preview of director Robert Zemeckis’ smash hit in 1985 and confidently proclaimed the Steven Spielberg production an instant classic. After my snap judgment was vindicated the world over Zemeckis and Bob Gale received one of its four Oscar nominations for their deft, rambunctious screenplay, two sequels were spawned (both much better than I recalled, as my family sat down with the trilogy for a pandemic rewatch), and Back to the Future: The Ride entertained guests at Universal’s theme parks for decades. And so, 38 years later, we’ve come to the theater, where aging properties go not to die, but to sing.
Onboard are Gale, writing the book, and composer Alan Silvestri, whose brassy themes turbocharge the movie (he and Glen Ballard, of the Ghost and Jagged Little Pill musicals, collaborated on the music and lyrics). Unless you’ve been hiding in Doc Brown’s garage since the Reagan years you know how the story goes (the 1985 and 1955 time periods are retained), and Gale has made a few tweaks to it, changing a plot point or two (the Libyan terrorists who gum up the time-travel works for Doc and Marty McFly are gone) and adding some minor characters for a referential laugh (like an “Uncle Huey”). Mr. Lewis’ two songs, the Oscar-nominated chart-topper “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time,” are present and accounted for at the climax and encore, and there is a spirited performance of “Johnny B. Goode” as the show gears up for its conclusion. The trouble is there are about 18 less noteworthy songs behind them, making the Chuck Berry number, a high point of the crossed-generations comedy, anticlimactic.
That said there aren’t too many movies-into-musicals songs that linger in the memory once the show’s over, and these are par for the course, giving everyone a voice. There’s a song for Goldie, the future mayor (“Gotta Start Somewhere”), a song for Biff, the bad guy, and his hooligans (“It’s Only a Matter of Time”), a song for Jennifer, Marty’s girl (“Deep Diving”), and so forth. None of them deepen the characterizations, but, fine. The big question is how closely will the stage performers hit the marks established by the film actors, and how will they deviate? Frizzy-haired Casey Likes, the star of last season’s short-lived simulacrum of Almost Famous, is no Michael J. Fox, but he finds what warmth and heart he can in a very busy turn as Marty. As George, his hapless dad, Olivier nominee Hugh Coles goes all in on Crispin Glover, and more, pretty much barking like a seal in times of stress. The show-stopper, however, is Roger Bart as Doc Brown; Bart was in the musicals of The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and he brings a Mel Brooks-ian mania to the part, a successful departure from Christopher Lloyd’s iconic portrayal. So exuberant that Doc comes with his own multipurpose chorus line (a silly “musical” bit of business that works) Bart establishes a strong, patter-filled bond with Likes and brings the show close to its all-important 88 MPH.
Bringing it closer is what we’ve really come to see, the DeLorean time machine in action. Move over, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang–the car is the star here, now with voice activation and the power to levitate over the stage and fly into the audience. My 12-year-old son was transfixed by the spectacle, and so was I. With Silvestri’s film score setting the pace the show, directed with traffic cop precision by John Rando, can drop the song-and-dance pretense and focus on wowing us with elaborate setpieces, from some of the most talented technicians in London: Tim Hatley (scenic and costume design), Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone (lighting design), Finn Ross (video design), Gareth Owen (sound design), Chris Fisher (illusions), and TwinsFX (the diva DeLorean). Design reminiscent of a firing engine extends into the theater, and all systems are go when the vehicle is driving the show. If Back to the Future was an original concept for the stage it might win the lion’s share of the awards and run forever. But it isn’t, and for all the ingenuity that went into bringing it onto the stage a show that declares “where we’re going we don’t need roads” sticks a little too closely to the tried-and-true template for adaptations.