‘Back to the Future’ Broadway Review: Roger Bart Travels on Autopilot

The gifted comedian delivers the performance this tired exercise in excessive stagecraft deserves

Back to the Future
"Back to the Future" (Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

The DeLorean car in the new musical “Back to the Future” is definitely more exciting than the antique roadster in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” That musical, with songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, ran for a few months back in 2005, and while lackluster, it does have one thing over the new flying-car show: The Sherman brothers score is definitely more engaging than the songs Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard have written for “Back to the Future,” which opened Thursday at the Winter Garden Theatre after the show’s world premiere in the U.K. in 2020.

Silvestri and Ballard’s original score is so derivative it gives jukebox musicals a good name. When the lyrics aren’t a string of rhyming clichés — “You gotta take time to/Be what you can be/And let me remind you/You’re everything to me” — they repeat the respective song’s title incessantly.

“It works! It works! It works!” we’re told when the DeLorean zips back in time. Musically, those songs recycle everything from soft-shoe and ragtime to the girl-group sound of the early 1960s — even though most of this musical is set in 1955, the year to which the teen hero Marty McFly (Casey Likes) accidentally finds himself flown back in time. The musical’s book by Bob Gale is based on the 1985 movie of the same title that he wrote with director Robert Zemeckis.

Casey Likes returns to the stage in “Back to the Future” after making his Broadway debut last season in the short-lived musical “Almost Famous,” which, in comparison, now looks like a classic. The young actor’s meteoric career can pretty much be summed up with the titles of those two theater credits, “Almost Famous” and “Back to the Future.” Reprising Michael J. Fox’s iconic performance in the movie version, Likes brings a nice set of pipes to this singing role and he also supplies a lot of energy, which is most evident in his scenes with this show’s crazed inventor, Roger Bart.

Beyond Doc’s gray fright wig, Bart doesn’t replicate Christopher Lloyd’s memorable performance in the movie. Instead, he brings to mind a manic but weary Jack Lemmon sometime around that legendary actor’s comic nadir of “Luv” and “Good Neighbor Sam.” Bart played Doc on the West End, and he hasn’t so much grown in the role as switched it to autopilot. Who can blame him? The songs and jokes are dreary, and some of the sight gags that director John Rando has provided — Doc’s pants rip at one point when the character bends over to stick his butt up in the air — are lame. When Rando’s work isn’t vulgar, it is often incomprehensible. Big and purposefully tacky production numbers pop up out of nowhere only to evaporate just as quickly.

The movie “Back to the Future” walks a fine line with its incest theme. The musical trips over it with a resounding thud. Playing Marty’s mother, Liana Hunt is unamusingly horny. Playing Marty’s father, Hugh Coles is unamusingly gross and his Peeping Tom moment “My Myopia” is downright creepy.

As for the DeLorean car, it moves across the stage with real grace as Finn Ross’s video designs give the impression that it’s moving through space. Tim Hatley and Chris Fisher are credited as “designer” and “illusion designer,” respectively. When the car ascends in the air, there’s no doubt about it: The show provides the best forklift money can buy. I was very happy not to be sitting in the theater’s first half dozen rows.