Saturday, September 9, 2023

Back to the Future: The Musical - An Unnecessary Trip

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The Broadway graveyard is filled with musical efforts that sprang from movies. Groundhog Day, Mrs. Doubtfire, Rocky and Pretty Woman among some of the more recent internees. While it’s too early to consign Back to the Future: The Musical, based on the hit 1985 film of the same name, to the same fate, it may soon be headed in that direction. This despite some pretty strong special effects. As well as a very appealing lead performance.

It’s 1985 in Hill Valley, California and high school student Marty McFly (Casey Likes), whose rock-n-roll band just failed their latest audition, is terrified of ending up like his family. His mother Lorraine (Liana Hunt) is an alcoholic; his older brother and sister (Daryl Tofa, Amber Ardolino) have lives on the fast track to nowhere; and his father George (Hugh Coles) is a beaten-down milquetoast who is terrified of confrontation. George is also is constantly harassed by his former high school nemesis Biff Tannen (Nathaniel Hackman), who is now his supervisor at work.

(L-R) Roger Bart and Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

One evening Marty’s friend Doc Brown (Roger Bart), the town crackpot, announces he has invented a time machine and wants Mary to document an upcoming test run. Doc intends to use the machine himself, which he has built inside a DeLorean. However before he can start on his journey, Doc collapses due to exposure to plutonium. The element used to power the vehicle. In a panic, Marty jumps into the DeLorean to go for help, but once the car reaches 88 miles an hour, the time circuits activate and send Marty thirty years in the past.

Shortly after his arrival in 1955 Hill Valley, and while searching for the Doc Brown of that time, Marty encounters his parents as teenagers. He also inadvertently interferes with their first meeting. One which initially kindled their romantic feelings for each other. Now before he can attempt to return to his own time, Marty has to get his parents to fall in love. Otherwise, neither he nor his siblings will ever be born. Matters become even more complicated when Lorraine starts having romantic feeling for Marty. Much to the fury of the overbearing Biff, who sees Lorraine as his personal girlfriend. Even though Lorraine wants nothing to do with him.

(L-R, top row) Victoria Byrd, Jonalyn Saxer, Becca Peterson. (L-R, bottom row) Casey Likes, Liana Hunt in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

There is certainly enough material here for a stage adaptation. The core idea of the show being how one small event can change the future forever. Tied in with this is the importance of never settling when it comes to what's really important in life. Be it deciding to run for political office or choosing to stand up for someone you care about.

Unfortunately in transferring the story to a new medium, the creative team, which includes Bob Gale as the bookwriter, who also co-wrote the script for the original film, all seem to have forgotten an important step in the process. That being, to make sure the new property is different enough from the original to warrant its creation in the first place. Yet what ends up on stage feels more like a tired retread. With many scenes and dialogue copied almost beat for beat.
It doesn’t help that the creators have also forgotten the “less is more” principle. Specifically as it applies to the characters of Doc Brown and George McFly. 

Roger Bart in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman 

Doc, played by the usually reliable Bart, is so over the top in both eras, there’s no real character development or backstory for the audience to latch onto. Here, he fritters to and fro and rarely varies his vocal cadence. Even worse, Bart’s verbal interactions with Likes often mimic the Burns and Schreiber “taxicab” routine. The only time Doc becomes anything more than a caricature is when Bart sings “For the Dreamers”. A quiet ballad which offers a fleeting glimpse behind his fast-talking facade as he realizes that finally, he has a chance to be something more than a laughingstock.

The character of George has similar problems. A hapless sad sack with no confidence whatsoever, Marty must try to teach him to stand up for himself. However George’s laugh, facial tics, hand gestures and efforts to try to follow Marty’s advice are so exaggerated, they quickly become annoying. This is a case of someone trying too hard to be funny and instead becoming painful to watch. As with Doc, George’s portrayal would have worked far better if we were given some history on the character as to why he is the way he is.

Another issue is that the score by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard is not all that memorable. The strongest numbers in the musical ones that were in the original film. Additionally, the first act finale just falls apart, instead of giving the audience a reason to return for act two. One of the few new numbers to really stand out is “Gotta Start Somewhere”, which boasts a very strong performance by Jelani Remy as Goldie Wilson.

Jelani Remy and the cast of Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

Likes does quite well in the lead role, coming across as a beleaguered sort who you don’t mind spending time with. He also looks alternatively terrified and frustrated as he tries to fit into 1955 Hill Valley, while continually trying to dodge Lorraine’s evermore amorous advances. Additionally, he nicely put across all of the songs he is tasked with. Including a killer rendition of “Johnnie B. Goode”. Other good performances include Mikaela Secada as Marty’s girlfriend, Hunt as Lorraine and Remy as both Goldie Wilson and Marvin Berry.

John Rando’s direction is uneven. He’s on point when it comes to the more dramatic moments, but his efforts fall flat when it comes to the comedy. Attempt at which feel awkward, uncomfortable, and continually distract from the stronger elements in the story.

The one especially strong aspect in the show are the special effects, Especially when it comes to having a full-size car appear to travel 88 miles an hour on a Broadway stage. Designer Tim Hatley and the rest of the team also come up with a finale that is superb. Sadly, these final moments don’t make up for all of the pitfalls that have come before. Indeed, it would be great if the DeLorean really did allow one to travel through time. That way, Gale, Rando, et. al., could have gone back to the beginning of the creative process and this time, tried to get it right.

Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

Featuring: Casey Likes (Marty McFly), Jelani Remy (Goldie Wilson/Marvin Berry), Merritt David Janes (Principal Strickland/Lou Carruthers/Mayor Red Thomas/Sam Baines), Mikaela Secada (Jennifer Parker), Nathaniel Hackman (Biff Tannen), Hugh Coles (George McFly), Daryl Tofa (Dave McFly/Slick), Amber Ardolino (Linda McFly/Stella Baines), Liana Hunt (Lorraine Baines), Roger Bart (Doc Brown), Victoria Byrd (Betty/Pretty Baby Trio), Becca Petersen (Babs/Pretty Baby Trio), Will Branner (3D), Jonalyn Saxer (Clocktower Woman/Pretty Baby Trio), Nick Drake (Reginald (Starlighter #1)), Kevin Curtis (Starlighter #2), Joshua Kenneth Allan Johnson (Starlighter #3)

Ensemble: Amber Ardolino, Will Branner, Victoria Byrd, Brendan Chan, Kevin Curtis, Nick Drake, Marc Heitzman, Merritt David Janes, Hannah Kevitt, JJ Niemann, Becca Peterson, Emma Pittman, Jonalyn Saxer, Mikaela Secada, Daryl Tofa

Back to the Future: The Musical
Book by Bob Gale
Music & Lyrics by Alan Silvestri & Glen Ballard

Based on the Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment film
Written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale

Fight Director: Maurice Chan
Wigs, Hair and Make-Up: Campell Young Associates
Musical Supervisor: Vocal & Music Arrangements: Nick Finlow
Music Director: Ted Arthur
Orchestrations: Ethan Popp & Bryan Crook
Dance Arrangements: David Chase
Sound Designer: Gareth Owen
Lighting Designers: Tim Lutkin & Hugh Vanstone
Video Director: Finn Ross
Illusion Designer: Chris Fisher
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Designer: Tim Hatley
Directed by John Rando

Winter Garden Theatre
1634 Broadway
Tickets; 212-239-6200,
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one intermission
Open Run

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