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Theatre in Review: Back to the Future (Winter Garden Theatre)

Roger Bart, Casey Likes. Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Back to the Future represents the state of Broadway today. Is that good or bad? It depends.

Even as Hollywood discovers that the shelf life of intellectual property may not last beyond the seventh or eighth sequel, Broadway doubles down on the tried and true, continuing to retool hit film comedies into musicals. Back to the Future is a total retread of Robert Zemeckis' 1985 hit, in many cases brought to you by the original filmmakers, including book writer Bob Gale (co-author of the screenplay), and composer Alan Silvestri, who merges his school-of-John-Williams score with new songs by him and Glen Ballard. It's a reboot for the stage, punched up with plenty of song, dance, and special effects. If the latter are jaw-dropping, the former are of variable quality. As theatrical vehicles go, it has a DeLorean body with an Edsel motor; it takes the audience on a fast, fun ride -- but be ready for some metal fatigue.

Most of the production's considerable invention has gone into John Rando's supercharged staging and the production design by a team of top creatives. As in the film, Marty McFly, a would-be teen rocker, circa 1985, is blasted by Doc, his mad scientist best friend, to 1955, where the townspeople sing joyously of the benefits of unleaded gasoline, unfiltered cigarettes, asbestos, and DDT. Clearly disoriented in this brave old world, Marty accidentally derails the moment when his parents, George and Lorraine, first met. That's one of the pesky things about vaulting through the time-space continuum: If Marty doesn't get Mom and Dad together, their marriage won't happen, and he and his siblings will cease to exist. It's the tallest of orders, however: George is a hopeless nerd, a pipsqueak with the body language of a Swiss Army Knife. (For him, the term "milquetoast" would constitute trading up.) Worse, Lorraine thinks Marty is real boyfriend material, threatening to jolt the story into Oedipus-and-Jocasta territory.

It's a richly comic situation but translating it to the musical stage results in several unforced errors. The show insists on retaining Jennifer, Marty's girlfriend, introducing her in the third number, "Wherever We're Going," and then forgetting about her until much too late. (This is nothing against the charming Mikaela Secada.) Introducing George, hiding in a tree, spying on the undressed Lorraine in her bedroom, makes him look like a pervert, an impression that his song, "My Myopia," does little to disperse. (Hugh Coles' bizarre performance, consisting of vocal tics and nervous baby-stork gestures, will be a matter of taste.) It's one thing to jokingly hint at Lorraine's unwittingly incestuous attraction to Marty; it's another thing altogether to stage an entire number, "Pretty Baby," around the idea, featuring Lorraine, on her knees, staring at Marty's crotch and him hiding his erection with a pillow. (As Lorraine, Liana Hunt is the best of sports.) It's also indicative of the writers' lack of musical theatre expertise that the first act's biggest showstopper, "Gotta Start Somewhere," is assigned to Goldie, a janitor, who is utterly irrelevant to the story. (You'll remember Jelani Remy, who is sensational.)

But, among the stray characters, off-topic production numbers, and tuxedoed chorus dancers who make unexplained appearances -- Chris Bailey is the lively, if sometimes lazy, choreographer -- the show has considerable assets, starting with its leads. As Marty, Casey Likes, who escaped unscathed from last season's blink-and-you'll-miss-it attraction Almost Famous, here emerges as a triple threat with a big voice and assured comedy chops. So strong is his charm that he even wins us over to Coles' George when they pair up for the eccentrically danced "Put Your Mind to It." As Doc, the crazed inventor outfitted with weird gizmos, an armada of wisecracks, and Ed Wynn hair, Roger Bart delivers laughs like an old-school Broadway comic in the Danny Kaye/Robert Morse tradition. (He easily survives the show's weakest numbers: "21st Century," an ode to the future that has nothing to do with anything, and "For the Dreamers," a sententious ballad that misguidedly tries to add some ballast to these frothy proceedings.) The frantic crosstalk bits between Likes and Bart are pure hilarity, yet the actors also form a warm bond that makes it easy to care about their characters, especially in the climax, when it looks like Doc might not survive these time-traveling shenanigans.

To be sure, the special effects deliver big-time thrills, beginning with the DeLorean appearing out of nowhere -- Chris Fisher is the illusion designer -- and including the thrilling speed sequences paced by Finn Ross' double-layered projection design. (These scenes are as good as any theme park motion control ride.) Tim Hatley's production design wraps the stage in a superstructure of circuit boards while delivering a variety of locations, including Doc's cluttered garage laboratory, a high school dance with an undersea theme, and an Art Deco diner interior, among others; his costumes also nail both time frames with wit and accuracy. Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Gareth Owen's ultra-punchy, effects-laden, yet always intelligible sound are both on the highest professional level.

There's little question that Back to the Future is poised to zoom into the box office stratosphere, thanks to tourists looking for a wow experience and parents in search of a big, fun night out with the kids. (A waggish friend has already dubbed it "Wicked for boys.") And compared to such wan film-to-stage transfers as Mrs. Doubtfire, Mr. Saturday Night, and Pretty Woman, it has the shiny patina of a smash hit. It's the odd case of a so-so show put over by sheer determination and technique. I had a good time at Back to the Future but all that pizzazz is no substitute for a first-rate book and score. Its legions of would-be imitators should remember that such a success is harder than it looks: Remember how Spider-Man turned out. --David Barbour

(14 August 2023)

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