“Back to the Future,” opening tonight on Broadway, is a nearly scene-by-scene re-creation of the 1985 movie on which it’s based. This is in some ways a lost opportunity to reimagine a story that’s as tied to a specific era as the sports car it showcases, the DeLorean, which stopped production in 1983. So it’s perhaps a tad ironic that it’s the DeLorean that redeems this musical, far more than the serviceable score or familiar choreography or competent cast. The car serves as the main vehicle for the often thrilling stage design and special effects.
In the new musical as in the old movie, Marty McFly (Casey Likes) is a skateboarding, guitar-playing teenager living in 1985, who accidentally activates the DeLorean car that his brilliant eccentric friend Doc Brown (Roger Bart) has turned into a time machine, thrusting him back thirty years to the year 1955. There Marty stumbles upon both his father George (Hugh Coles) and his mother Lorraine (Liana Hunt) – before they met. He inadvertently alters the past: To his great discomfort and alarm, his mother falls for him instead of his father – which jeopardizes Marty’s very existence. To make sure he will be born, he needs to restore things to the way they were – and, not incidentally, somehow make his way back to the present (i.e. 1985.)
Making his Broadway debut, librettist Bob Gale, who was the original co-screenwriter (along with Robert Zemeckis, who is listed as one of the musical’s producers) seems loath to alter anything about the past. The musical is not only set in the same two years as the movie, it sticks to the basic plot, changing only the most blatantly anachronistic details. (Doc is no longer shot by Libyan terrorists; now he’s poisoned accidentally by plutonium.) It even repeats many of the old jokes, not all of which have aged well. This strict adherence changes the primary tone of the show. The screen version is a cheeky take on the difference between the past and present eras and generations. The stage version is an exercise in nostalgia (and in marketing.)
But here’s the beauty part of their stubborn unwillingness to depart from the movie: Since they didn’t want to get rid of the DeLorean or the action sequences in which it’s featured, much effort was clearly poured into translating those scenes for a live stage show. A spectacular design team, each of whom has won a Tony Award for previous shows — scenic and costume designer Tim Hatley (who greatly deserved the Tony he just won for his design of Life of Pi), lighting designers Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone, video and projection designer Finn Ross, sound designer Gareth Owen – plus illusion designer Chris Fisher (who singlehandedly should convince the Tonys to create a new category) – together put together a fiery, flying, booming, suddenly disappearing. DeLorean – and the spaces before, below above and beyond it — so enveloping it feels (and looks and sounds) as if we’re on a theme park ride. The suspenseful scene where Marty must get everything just right for lightning to strike and return him to 1985 seems a Hitchcock-level lesson in film editing – except it’s not a film!
The DeLorean is not the only effort to blast us into submission. There is the videos of old video games like Pac Man, real fire, a real fire extinguisher, at one point soap bubbles descend onto our heads. Even the choreography has an over-the-top vibe: dancing girls in white lab coats with glowing metal hats with radioactive goggles, with ends with a little metatheatrical fun:
“Hey Doc, who are the girls?” Marty asks at the end of one such number.
“I dunno. They show up every time I start singing.”
There are some two dozen musical numbers in “Back to the Future,” only four of which were also in the movie. These, written by Chuck Berry and Huey Lewis and the News, happen to be the most memorable, but there are any number of appealing musical moments. I was partial to a few of the quieter numbers, such as “Put Your Mind to It” a father-and-son duet with Casey Likes and Hugh Coles, especially since it’s one of the few times that Coles doesn’t have to play a cartoonish loser.
Broadway veteran Roger Bart and newcomer Casey Likes are well-cast, carrying the musical much like their counterparts Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox carried the movie. It’s worth noting – and easy to miss – that twenty-one-year-old Likes, who made his impressive Broadway debut last year as the precocious teenage rock journalist in “Almost Famous,” is not as hilariously self-assured as Fox was in the movie. He is given a moment – indeed an entire song – to doubt, the sad ballad “Got No Future.”
Nobody can predict the future, but I very much doubt that song title is true.
Back to the Future
Winter Garden Theater
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one fifteen minute intermission.
Tickets: $58-$288. Rush: $40. Digital lottery: $45 (via Telecharge)
Book by Bob Gale, music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard
Directed by John Rando.
Scenic and costume design by Tim Hatley, choreography by Chris Bailey, Music Supervision, Vocal and Additional Arrangements by Nick Finlow, lighting design by Tim Lutkin & Hugh Vanstone, video design by Finn Ross, sound design by Gareth Owen, illusion design by Chris Fisher, orchestrations by Ethan Popp & Bryan Crook, dance arrangements by David Chase, music direction by Ted Arthur
Cast: Roger Bart, Casey Likes, Hugh Coles, Liana Hunt, Jelani Remy, Nathaniel Hackmann, and includes Merritt David Janes, Mikaela Secada, Amber Ardolino, Will Branner, Victoria Byrd, Brendon Chan, Kevin Curtis, Nick Drake, Samuel Gerber, Marc Heitzman, Kimberly Immanuel, Joshua Kenneth Allen Johnson, Hannah Kevitt, JJ Niemann, Becca Petersen, Emma Pittman, Jonalyn Saxer, Blakely Slaybaugh, Gabi Stapula, and Daryl Tofa.
Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman