'Back to the Future' review — 1.21 gigawatts of fun, heart, and spectacle

Read our four-star review of Back to the Future on Broadway, the award-winning musical adaptation of the classic film playing at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

If IMAX had taken off by 1985, Back to the Future would have been its year's Oppenheimer: the kind of epic film you must see in IMAX, or at least on the biggest screen you can find. The iconic flying DeLorean, piloted across space-time by teenager Marty McFly and scientist Doc Brown, deserves nothing less. Ditto for the stakes of the plot. Unwittingly becoming one of humanity’s first time travelers and nearly wiping out your own existence by meddling in your parents’ meet-cute is, to quote Doc, “some serious shit.”

That's a lot for one teenager like Marty to handle — not to mention the ultimate terror of capturing his unknowing high-school-aged mother’s affections. And yet, Back to the Future emerges, and continues to be regarded, as a funny, cult-classic romp. The musical adaptation, now on Broadway with 1.21 gigawatts of spectacle, honors all these views at once and gives Back to the Future the larger-than-life presentation it deserves.

The design, naturally, does a lot of the heavy lifting. Walking into the Winter Garden Theatre feels like walking into a Back to the Future augmented-reality theme park attraction: A network of LEDs outfits the proscenium, the railings of the box seats, and even the ceiling. The design feels immersive, aided by Finn Ross's videos that, at one point, even put audiences into Marty's point of view as he rockets from 1985 to 1955.

That's not to mention the rest of Hatley's meticulously detailed sets and vibrant period costumes, Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone's hyperactive lighting (which, along with smoke effects, aid Chris Fisher's sci-fi illusions), and Gareth Owen's heart-thumping sound. Together with director John Rando's staging and Chris Bailey's athletic choreography that works the large ensemble for all it's got, the whole production is clearly eager, desperate even, to thrill you at every second. But to again quote Doc (and the title of his triumphant entrance song), it works.

On the topic of the songs, those mostly work, including timeless film favorites like "The Power of Love" and "Johnny B. Goode." A third of the score could have otherwise been cut. Some are repetitive — not every song needs a reprise, and not every character needs a full-length "I want" number (or multiple) where a line or two of dialogue would suffice. It feels like a retroactive attempt to invest audiences in the characters, who get rather abruptly introduced at the start.

It's an odd paradox, that Back to the Future assumes prior familiarity with the film such that the players need little introduction, while positing nearly every character as worthy of substantial exploration. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the fact that two of the movie's creators are involved: Bob Gale adapted the musical's book from his and Robert Zemeckis's screenplay, and Alan Silvestri, who composed the film score, co-wrote the musical's rollicking score with Glen Ballard. They clearly know and adore all their characters, but not all audiences have the same depth of understanding, especially 38 years on from the film's premiere.

But like the DeLorean climbing to the crucial 88 miles per hour, the writers ultimately succeed in building the show's momentum and narrative heft. Once Marty meets his teenaged parents, Lorraine and George, in 1955 and catches Lorraine's eye before George can, he has to course-correct — and gets to know his parents better in the process. Back to the Future is really a story about how the young can shape older generations' futures, after all, not just the other way around.

"My Myopia," a song sung by the hapless George as he secretly watches his future wife from a tree, shows Marty his dad's spinelessness began in adolescence. Later, they share a duet, "Put Your Mind to It," in which Marty teaches George how to be a more confident man. The energetic Casey Likes as Marty and Hugh Coles, a rubber-limbed physical comedy master reprising his role from London, as George bring these scenes close to perfect. As Lorraine, Liana Hunt channels a Grease-era Olivia Newtown John in dulcet (if incestuous) songs like "Pretty Baby."

It could be easy, amid everything else going on, to minimize Doc, even though he invents time travel in the first place and makes the rest of Back to the Future possible. But Christopher Lloyd made the character so indelible on screen that to forget Doc would be a crime. And from his first entrance in a cloud of smoke, Roger Bart, also reprising his role from London, makes the character iconic anew.

Bart milks Doc's triumphant early songs for all they're worth, complete with a leggy ensemble as backup — which only make his poignant Act 2 ballad, "For the Dreamers," strike the heartstrings even more. It's then we learn that, before Marty proved otherwise, Doc spent 30 years worrying he'd fail — and be forgotten in time.

"This one's for the dreamers who were close, but no cigar," Doc laments, Bart utterly sincere. "We don't know who they are."

Back to the Future is many in-your-face things — larger-than-life, time-bending, hair-raising — but this small moment reveals the heart amid the spectacle.

Back to the Future is at the Winter Garden Theatre. Get Back to the Future tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Casey Likes and the cast of Back to the Future. (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of years since the Back to the Future film's premiere. The article has been updated to reflect the correct information.

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