‘Back to the Future: The Musical’ review: Watch the movie instead

todayAugust 4, 2023 1

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Delightful and delicious? No — it’s DeLorean. 

“Back To The Future: The Musical,” which opened Thursday night on Broadway, doesn’t have much going for it in the way of tuneful songs, show-stopping dances or enthralling storytelling. But it does have a star vehicle. 

Theater review

Two and a half hours, with one intermission. At the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway.

Its very own Wells Fargo Time Machine. A Chitty Chitty Flux Capacitor. A Greased (Struck By) Lightnin’.

Onstage, the famous DeLorean drives, spins, flies and turns upside down with the actors inside it. The hotrod is the biggest special effect the Winter Garden Theatre has seen since “Rocky the Musical” plopped a boxing ring in the middle of the orchestra nearly 10 years ago.

But Huey Lewis did not sing “Power of Car,” he sang “Power of Love.” And heart is completely absent from director John Rando’s shiny and serviceable staging of the beloved 1985 science-fiction movie.

Coursing emotion, teen angst and can-do scrappiness are what set director Robert Zemeckis’ original film apart from other entries in the time-travel genre. “Back To The Future” wasn’t HG Wells or “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” And it’s hardly remembered as a flashy spectacle, either. The flick was a fun ‘80s adventure romp about a guitarist who winds up in 1955 Main Street, America. 

Doc Brown (Roger Bart) unveils his time-traveling DeLorean.
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman, 2023

“Future” didn’t star somebody serious like Charlton Heston in “The Planet of the Apes,” but instead cast smart-aleck Michael J. Fox, who was then best known as the hilarious Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties.”

On Broadway, however, we have a bloated gizmo nobody asked for that, while enjoyable in parts and with an embraceable star in Casey Likes as Marty, never justifies its perplexing existence as a stage musical. “Reenact the movie, sure,” the audience sits there thinking. “But please stop singing.”

Besides its unfortunate songs and some 2023 tweaks — Doc Brown (Roger Bart) now gets plutonium poisoning at the start instead of being shot to death by Libyan terrorists — the show is beat-for-beat the same plot as the film up until a more neatly wrapped-up ending.

Casey Likes in Back to the Future
Casey Likes takes on the role of Marty McFly in “Back to the Future: The Musical” on Broadway.
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman, 2023

Marty McFly (Likes) is still a high school-hating rebel whose geeky father George (Hugh Coles) has grown into a sad-sack disappointment that’s constantly tormented by his bully boss Biff (Nathaniel Hackman). So Marty seeks refuge at the home of Doc, the local Hill Valley, Calif., mad scientist.

During a nighttime parking-lot demo of his new DeLorean time machine, Doc is fatally poisoned. So, the kid must go back in time to save his friend’s life. But, whoops, the car runs out of juice at his destination and he’s stuck for good in 1955. So it’s up to Past Doc to help Marty go back … to the future! 

Hyperactive Bart does to Doc exactly what he did to Fredrick in “Young Frankenstein”: talks ultra-fast, grimaces and shouts. His Brown is a clown who is impossible to care one iota about, let alone 1.2 gigawatts. His one big song called “21st Century,” a trippy dream sequence at the start of Act 2, is the show’s most significant departure from the movie. But it’s hampered by a creepy, ’90s KoolAid cult vibe.

Roger Bart in Back to the Future
A song called “21st Century,” featuring Roger Bart as Doc, has a creepy KoolAid cult vibe.
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman, 2023

Where the show somewhat finds its way are the scenes featuring the younger versions of Marty’s mom Lorraine (Liana Hunt) and dad. By coming in contact with them — she gets the hots for her own kid — he screws up the world’s timeline and potentially his very existence. Therefore, Marty must ensure that the ‘rents meet and fall in love at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance.

Those hormonal shenanigans at least allow for some amusing broad comedy onstage, mostly featuring the excellent Coles as geeky George. Coles, at first, does a terrifyingly spot-on Crispin Glover impression, and then finds artfulness in mimicry by exaggerating his movements in a highly theatrical way. His learning-to-be-cool duet with Likes, called “Put Your Mind To It,” is one of the only songs you’ll remember all night.

Otherwise the score, by Glen Ballard (of “Jagged Little Pill” fame), is awful whenever it’s not borrowing from Alan Silvestri’s rousing theme music from the film. You’ll note its inferiority when excellent songs from the movie, such as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Power of Love” are performed amid all the modern mediocrity.

And the audience is especially grateful for the famous old one-liners (“Great Scot!,” “Ronald Reagan? The actor?!”) when the original screenwriter Bob Gale’s new book gives Doc a cringey joke about COVID.

Casey Likes in Back to the Future
Lorraine (Liana Hunt) gets the hots for Marty (Casey Likes), her son from thirty years in the future.
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman, 2023

Marty marks the second iconic movie-to-stage role for Likes in a lacking musical adaptation, after last season’s “Almost Famous.” He’s undoubtedly a big talent and he brings the same gee-whiz energy here that’s so easy for an audience to root for. How unfortunate that he’s been done such a disservice by this forgettable music. He is a far better singer than the musical lets him be.

Some will insist that the show is meant for “Back to the Future” super fans only. Well, speaking as one of those super fans who has watched the film trilogy countless times to the point of “Pledge of Allegiance”-like recitation, the musical left me cold and uninvolved.    

It made me want to go back… to the movie! 

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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