Thursday, April 18, 2024

Review: “Back to the Future” Musical Lands on Broadway a Stunning Visual Production Made for the Nostalgic by Artificial Intelligence


“Back to the Future,” a hit musical from London, has landed at the cavernous Winter Garden Theater. Based on the 1985 movie, the show is a crowd pleaser if only because everyone who sees it knows the story and is ready to see it re-enacted on a stage.

And boy, is it ever. From the moment you walk into the Winter Garden you can tell these people are serious with a capital S. The venerable showplace has been remade into a futuristic fantasy that lights up with neon everywhere. If you’re a kid, or an adult who saw the movie as a kid, this is heaven. It’s like watching a pinball machine light up over and over.

A machine made musical is really timely in our current discourse. It’s as if someone fed Robert Zemeckis’s clever movie into Artificial Intelligence and asked it to write a Broadway show. Out this thing has popped from a computer slot. All the characters, the sets, the plot, it’s all there. The only thing it’s missing is, to reference the Tin Man from The Wizard Oz, is a heart.

Aside from the pre-existing songs from the movie — like Huey Lewis’ two hits, and things like “Johnny B. Goode” — the music sounds like it literally came out of a computer program. The songs, by top 40 hitmaker Glenn Ballard and the movie’s original composer Alan Silvestri, are constructed from about 20 different styles with, no cohesion of any kind. (By the way nearly every song has the word “future” in it over and over. Okay, we get it.) They’re like Bob Gale’s book, which takes no time to develop the characters he wrote so well for the original movie. Either you know ’em this time, or you don’t.

It’s not like the total package isn’t enjoyable. It is. To counterbalance this weird situation, the actors are all superb. And the production design is A plus. This show had to cost $20 million or more and you can tell they’re in for the long haul. When Doc’s Delorean appears on stage, it’s so compelling it’s actually a character in the musical. It’s the equivalent of the chandelier from “Phantom of the Opera.” And — it talks! (Kinda.) It also lights up, spews smoke, and eventually, it flies. What kid wouldn’t want to see that on stage?

The cast tries hard not to imitate the movie’s actors, and they pull that off with aplomb. Casey Likes, the kid who survived “Almost Famous” the musical, is a charming Marty McFly. He can sing and dance, and provide just enough disgust when his own mother gets a crush on him. Roger Bart, certainly a musical star by now, is commanding as the eccentric Doc Brown. He’s part Einstein and part Dr. Irwin Corey, plays it broadly, which is all you need.

Bart tends to steal all his scenes but he’s got a lot of competition. British actor Hugh Coles comes from the UK Production playing goofy nerd George McFly or, really, actor Crispin Glover playing George McFly. Coles won some awards doing this, and he’s really kind of genius. Jelani Remy is an absolute joy playing the dual roles of Goldie (who becomes the mayor) and the soul singer Marvin Berry (Marvin Gaye/Berry Gordy?). Songwise, Remy gets the most organic, spiritual moments. I could have listened to him all night. Liana Hunt is lovely and refreshing as Marty’s mom, Lorraine.

This is not a Broadway masterpiece like “Sweeney Todd” or “Parade” or “Here Lies Love.” It’s more like “Miss Saigon” on a good day. It’s an event, a presentation, an Entertainment, the kind you’d see in Vegas or at Disneyland. But those big numbers, the production values, are stupendous. Illusion designer Chris Fisher deserves buckets of kudos. Just as he made “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” a dazzling experience, he does the same here. Director John Rando is able to keep the action moving without taking a breath and Fisher waves a magic wand over the proceedings.

So come to “Back to the Future” for fun. Don’t take it too seriously. And just be happy Broadway gets a strong ticket draw that should run for some time.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

Read more

In Other News