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Review | Time travel gone wrong in Broadway’s ‘Back to the Future’

Back to the Future
This image released by Polk & Co. shows Casey Likes during a performance of “Back to the Future: The Musical.”
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman via AP

Marty McFly: Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me they built a pointless $23.5 million Broadway musical adaptation of “Back to the Future” that is just meant to celebrate the film’s most quotable lines and a grand finale with the DeLorean?

Doc Brown: Great Scott! That does sound like a giant waste of time and money – though it sure does make me want to watch the movie again!

At least every few months, a Broadway musical based on a classic film comes along that epitomizes what the late composer Mary Rodgers called a “why musical” – a pointless adaptation that adds little to, and is inferior than, the source upon which it is based. Just a few recent examples include “Rocky,” “Pretty Woman,” “Almost Famous,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Like countless other people, I know the original “Back to the Future” film backwards and forwards. (I am also a fan of “Part II,” though not so much “Part III.”) It is an absolutely superb popcorn movie that brilliantly blends the teen, comedy, adventure, and sci-fi genres.

I approached the show’s new Broadway production with the sincere hope of having a good time. At first, I even enjoyed the trippy design scheme inside the theater (blue lighting, clock ticking, computer processing units). Onstage graphics even did a countdown from 2023 to 1985.

Alas, it soon became apparent that the show (directed by John Rando) is just a vapid, slavish tribute to the original film, combining the memorable orchestral music and songs (“The Power of Love,” “Back in Time,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Earth Angel”) of the film score with subpar new songs (which annoyingly pause the story rather than build upon it, such as when Doc shares his utopian visions of the future) and rehashing the original screenplay with just a handful of changes (for instance, Doc is now threatened by radiation poisoning rather than Libyan terrorists).

Besides repeating the famous lines and moments for applause (such as when George McFly punches Biff), the production is built around a handful of appearances by the DeLorean time machine, which suddenly materializes and disappears, and later even levitates and spins in the air. This is not unlike how the “King Kong” musical was built around the giant King Kong puppet – or how “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” back in 2005 was also built around a high-tech flying car.

The actors (including Tony Award winner Roger Bart as Doc Brown and Casey Likes as Marty) are essentially just there to deliver hokey recreations of the performance of their film counterparts. At my performance, Likes won applause just for showing up onstage wearing Marty’s trademark red puffer vest.

As impressive as the special effects can be, wouldn’t it have been a lot better to just watch the film on a big screen with a live orchestra playing the score – the kind of thing that the New York Philharmonic does in its “Art of the Score” concerts? Or, how about an arena spectacular with no songs? I would have also preferred the now defunct “Back to the Future: The Ride” at Universal Studios, which simulated the experience of riding and time-traveling in the DeLorean.

Call me when it’s time for the inevitable “Ghostbusters” musical.

Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, backtothefuturemusical.com.

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