Back to the Future: The Musical | 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. | Winter Garden Theatre | 1634 Broadway | 212-239-6200
In recent weeks, several stories have reported an existential crisis in American theater. Cost inflation, dwindling donations, and post-pandemic audience shrinkage are decimating staffs and seasons coast to coast. The pessimistic might conclude that the Fabulous Invalid is finally, truly, on life support. Should you wander into the Winter Garden Theatre, you’d never know. There the crowds are thick and jubilant; when a plutonium-enhanced DeLorean donuts onstage billowing CO2 gas, grown men soil themselves in joy. Don’t be deceived; a healthy culture isn’t signified by $23 million tourist flypaper for nostalgic Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Does American theater have a future? God, I hope so. Does Back to the Future: The Musical? Who cares?
This leaden retread of the 1985 movie won an Olivier Award last year—which is all you need to know about British taste in musicals. Other screen-to-stage enterprises such as Moulin Rouge!, Beetlejuice, and Some Like It Hot have translated their sources into viable theatrical events, but Back to the Future remains slavishly tied to its cinematic past (notwithstanding removing Libyan terrorists). Uncritical reverence is probably inevitable when you retain two of the original creators: screenwriter Bob Gale and composer Alan Silvestri, both Broadway neophytes. A more enlightened production would have hired a seasoned book writer and a composer-lyricist like David Yazbek, who has distilled distinctive show tunes out of many a movie (from The Full Monty to The Band’s Visit).
Instead, we have this ungainly Frankenstein stitched together from a soundtrack concert, a theme park ride, and a meta-showbiz goof. The only reason to make a musical out of the beloved time-travel rom-com would be if the songs were, you know, really good. The period pastiche cranked out by Silvestri and Glen Ballard (the latter a prolific pop songwriter) is exceedingly banal and generic. Songs set in 1985 are forgettable soft rock ditties; tunes in 1955 are wan soundalikes evoking Leslie Gore or the Shirelles. Early on, we get a ham-handed attempt at Marty McFly’s “I Want” song, in which he dreams he’ll “[w]rite my future / For Simon and for Schuster / The tale of how I came to be / A rock ‘n’ roll biography.” Ah yes, what every guitar-shredding teen longs for: a book deal. When the Huey Lewis earworms “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time” (sung last, cruelly) are the musical high points, there may be a problem.
A talented ensemble works valiantly to inject their celebrity impersonations with humanity and spontaneity. How painful to see celluloid performances by Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Crispin Glover (as Marty, Doc Brown and Marty’s father, George) stretched over living actors like gruesome skinsuits. If antic tummler Roger Bart (prone to squawk-yelping punch lines, à la Nathan Lane) gives Doc Brown a veneer of campy panache, you appreciate the effort, even if it’s out of character for the eccentric inventor. By contrast, Hugh Coles commits zealously to Glover’s insectoid George McFly, all jutting elbows, stiff-legged stagger, and quavering nasality. When George downs a chocolate milk for liquid courage before asking Lorraine (Liana Hunt) to the prom, the imitation is so exact, you find yourself stranded between admiration and pity.
With the unenviable task of making us kinda-forget Michael J. Fox, Casey Likes is fresh and energetic, and establishes a frisky comic rapport with Bart. Director John Rando (Urinetown, The Wedding Singer) has handled far better musical-comedy material, but he keeps the evening humming along, even if you know exactly where the story is going, and how many crummy songs stand between Marty and the car getting him back to 1985.
So, in summary: a gifted cast with thankless roles, a hokey book that takes no chances, and an abysmal score that drags everything down. All that’s left is spectacle. And let’s be honest; the car is the star. Designed by Tim Hatley, lit by Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone, and given bleeps, bloops and sonic booms by Gareth Owen, the automotive time machine zooms to 88 mph through elaborate video front and rear projections created by Finn Ross with “illusion” effects by Chris Fisher. Looks fairly cool the first time, somewhat lame the second. For an encore, hearkening back to 2005’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the airborne contraption noses over the orchestra. Every generation gets the Broadway eye-candy it deserves: in the ’80s it was the chandelier; in the ’90s, the Circle of Life; in the early aughts a witch levitating on a broomstick. We get a 38-year-old gullwing DeLorean on a turntable.