Monday, September 11, 2023

Review: Back to the Future: The Musical

Review of the Saturday, September 9, 2023 matinee performance at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. Starring Roger Bart, Casey Likes, Hugh Coles, Nathaniel Hickmann, Liana Hunt, Jelani Remy, Merritt David Janes and Micaela Secada. Book by Bob Gale. Music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard. Based on the Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment film. Designed by Tom Hatley. Lighting design by Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone. Video design by Finn Ross. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Illusion design by Chris Fisher. Choreography by Chris Bailey. Direction by John Rando. 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A-

I say this all the time, but it bears repeating: I've grown weary of blockbuster films being turned into Broadway musicals. Recent history is littered with them (Pretty Woman, Mean Girls, etc.), and I can admit that they do offer certain charms and are generally entertaining. But occasionally, they surprise me by being really good adaptations, like Legally Blonde, where they take the familiar and actually acknowledge that musical theater has different parameters and characteristics. In short, embracing the art form they are creating instead of simply recreating the film's story and adding song and dance can make for a fun evening of theater. Back to the Future: The Musical happily belongs in the latter category. Part nostalgia, part thrill ride, this show entertains from start to finish, and takes the beloved film to new heights - literally and figuratively.

The book by Bob Gale (who also co-wrote the film) includes all of the fan favorite lines and scenes, but also deepens the characters - particularly Doc Brown. There are big laughs, cool surprises (no spoilers here!), fantastic meta moments, and some very sweet tenderness, too. The score, mainly written by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, and including a few songs from the film, has some terrific songs, like "Gotta Start Somewhere," "Something About That Boy," and "21st Century," rousing toe-tappers, all. The more introspective songs are somewhat less successful, often dragging down the otherwise fast pace. There is, however, one such song, "For the Dreamers," that is wonderful and explains a lot about who Doc Brown is under all that creative chaos. 

None of that would even matter without a solid principal cast and an energetic, all-in-on-the-joke ensemble. All 22 cast members (and 5 swings) contribute full-out - their enthusiasm is infectious and led me to feel remarkably invested in them all, despite knowing how it would all play out. Among the ensemblists who really stand out are Amber Ardolino and Daryl Tofa as Marty's sister and brother, and other bit parts, as well as Jonalyn Saxer as the beloved "Save the Clock Tower!" lady. Contributing with a sweet bookend of girlfriend scenes is Mikaela Secada, making her debut with a sweet voice and inspiring energy. As far as the principal roles go, Liana Hunt does a nice job with the role of Lorraine, Marty's mom who has a major crush on him; there's nothing icky here as she leans into 50's teenage innocence. Nathaniel Hackmann makes a fair impression of the film version of oafish bully Biff. His is a character that has benefited from the musical treatment and the actor thrives when called upon to sing and dance. Perhaps the best of the supporting cast is Jelani Remy as the going places Goldie Wilson, whose soaring vocals and charisma draws well-earned cheers of delight every time he opens his mouth. (I already look forward to seeing what he does next!)

Any version of Back to the Future's success will surely hinge on how good the actors are in the triumvirate of central roles: crazy scientist Doc Brown, teen Marty McFly, and his dad, George McFly. This original cast is in excellent hands with all three roles. Yes, they recall the beloved portrayals from the film, but, happily, none of the Broadway actors are doing simple impressions. Hugh Coles, as George McFly, probably runs closest to the film at first - his nervous ticks and bizarre laugh are immediately recognizable. As the story goes on, though, he really makes the role his own in all the right ways. Tony winner Roger Bart, contrary to online chit chat, is not doing a Christopher Lloyd impression (okay, when he shouts "Great Scott!" he sounds like Lloyd), instead going with a manic interpretation of rapid fire line readings, and an endearing, albeit quirky, delivery of multiple voice changes - often within the same sentence - that reveals a mind in constant not-really-mad scientist mode. Brilliant. 

Finally, there's Casey Likes, one of the best new Broadway talents in years, who made me feel sympathetic exhaustion from watching his lighting in a bottle star turn as Marty McFly. He also starts the show doing a pretty spot on Michael J. Fox take on the role. In retrospect, it makes sense - let the audience get comfortable before unleashing his wondrous version. He has a great young voice, charisma for days, and a star quality that dares you not to watch him exclusively. For my money, he's now two for two in successfully heading big Broadway musicals. 

I know I'm not the only one who has seen or will see the show who has wondered how they'd pull off the special effects that the story demands. Any worries I had were wasted time on my part, because they are all spectacular. I caught myself sitting there literally jaw-dropped and stunned more than once, and several times delighted at how wonderfully theatrical the effects were. Despite some intense visuals and projections (thrillingly designed by Finn Ross), it never feels like watching a film. It feels very live. Just as exciting is the spectacular lighting designed by Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone and the very detailed settings and period-perfect costumes (designed by Tim Hatley) all of which instantly and effectively transports us from the 80s to the 50s and back again. Technically, there is only one quibble I had - and it wasn't throughout the entire performance - and that was the sound balance between the orchestra and the cast. I couldn't make out a single word of the first song, for example, and that Gareth Owen (one of my favorite sound designers) designed it is a bit disappointing.

Chris Bailey
's detailed choreography is the perfect blend of 80s and 50s moves and modern Broadway dance styles. Great care was clearly taken to evoke the time period of each scene. Tony winner (for Urinetown) John Rando has done a terrific job delivering not only BTTF fans expect, but also creating a fully theatrical experience for musical fans. Sometimes, though, it feels like he's pushing for laughs at the expense of focus. There's a cafeteria scene with physical comedy bit, for example, that goes on way too long, and causes the audience to react to it while dialogue between two main characters is where our attention should be. I don't like being taken out of the action like that.

All in all, this is one movie-to-Broadway that is worth your time and money. It's not Sondheim, but it is a whole lot of fun. These days, I welcome the break from reality.

📸: M. Murphy, E. Zimmerman

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