Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 3, 2023
Back to the Future. Book by Bob Gale. Music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard. Based on the Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment film written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Directed by John Rando. Scenic and costume design by Tim Hatley. Choreography by Chris Bailey. Musical supervisor, vocal and music arrangements by Nick Finlow. Lighting design by Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone. Video design by Finn Ross. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Illusion design by Chris Fisher. Orchestrations by Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Fight director Maurice Chan. Wigs, hair, and make-up by Campbell Young Associates. Musical director Ted Arthur. Music coordinator Kristy Norter.
So let us raise a rousing chorus of hoorahs for the design team: Tim Hatley (set and costumes), Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone (lighting), Finn Ross (video), Gareth Owen (sound), and Chris Fisher (illusions). Together they make the magic happen. Without their tremendous skill and talent, Back to the Future would be nothing but a fairly close rehash of the movie, stuffed with too many uninspired pop tunes (music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard) and dance routines (choreography by Chris Bailey) that rarely rise above the level of serviceable time-fillers (though, thankfully, there is that rousing version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" near the end).
A personable Casey Likes takes on the Michael J. Fox role as Marty McFly; if you have trouble making the connection, you'll recognize the iconic red vest. As in the film, Marty is sent back 30 years to 1955, where he is tasked with making sure the two teenagers who will later be his parents actually get together. The squishiest plot point that bookwriter Bob Gale has had to manage here, as was true of the original screenplay he wrote with Robert Zemeckis, is getting past the icky part in which Marty's future mother Lorraine (Liana Hunt) is instantly attracted to him when she sees him in his purple Calvin Klein briefs.
But the most significant relationships here are between Marty and the teenage version of his dad, and between Marty and the eccentric, hyperactive inventor of the time-traveling DeLorean (or, rather, the "flux capacitor" that makes it operate). Both roles, George McFly (Hugh Coles) and Doc Brown (Roger Bart, a consummate audience-pleasing scene stealer), are being performed by the actors who originated them in the Olivier Award-winning London production, and both have polished them to a gleam.
But it is Roger Bart as Doc Brown who singularly provides the production's human magic. There is a twinkle in his eye with every line delivery, a self-awareness of his limitations as a singer and as a dancer (the techno-pop number that opens the second act is a doozy), and an ability to toss off ad-libs, or seeming ad-libs, out to a receptive audience. The quality of the show rises to 88 mph whenever he puts in an appearance.
Still and all, you will know exactly where the money went whenever the DeLorean fires up, and the worlds of cinematic technique and stage magic combine. The climactic clock tower scene is genuinely thrilling and is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Indeed, the plot, the music, and the choreography would seem to have been intentionally shaped to take a backseat to the design elements. Yet Back to the Future works in a way that, say, a show like King Kong failed to do, by giving us familiar and likeable (or hissable, in the case of Biff) human characters to follow whenever to DeLorean is off stage awaiting its next cue. Now that's entertainment!