Back to the Future the Musical review: A near-seamless slice of escapist entertainment

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Roger Bart  as Doc Brown  (Sean Ebsworth Barnes)
Roger Bart as Doc Brown (Sean Ebsworth Barnes)

This musical adaptation of Robert Zemeckis’s hit 1985 time-travel movie is enormous fun. Loyal to the story and the larky spirit of the original, it’s been deftly expanded by Zemeckis’s co-writer Bob Gale into a standalone stage work. As Marty McFly, Olly Dobson echoed the screen performance of Michael J Fox but added his own witty topspin; Broadway star Roger Bart did much the same in opening previews and early press performances, with Christopher Lloyd’s manic, iconic turn as Doc Brown, before testing positive for Covid yesterday: his part was taken last night by understudy Mark Oxtoby, who will continue until Bart can return. Even without Bart, though, director John Rando, choreographer Chris Bailey and designer Tim Hatley have together crafted a near-seamless slice of escapist entertainment.

Strangely for a show so well thought through, the music is the let-down. The score, by veterans Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, is 50 percent killer, 50 percent pleasing but generic filler. But the sets! They are pretty amazing; loving pastiches of Fifties and Eighties Americana framed by pulsing circuit boards reaching out into the auditorium, and the iconic DeLorean sports car tearing through CGI landscapes. Did I mention this show is enormous fun? You’ll believe a car can fly.

Accidentally transported back to 1955, Marty prevents his mum Lorraine and loser dad George from meeting. Worse, Lorraine falls for him instead, raising Oedipal and existential concerns: Marty may literally have cancelled himself. His and the Doc’s attempt to retro-engineer history match the movie’s manic fizz, but there’s a knowing overlay too. The film’s more questionable moments are acknowledged and finessed. Marty still plays Johnny B Goode at the party where his parents first kiss: but he no longer teaches Chuck Berry how to play his own music.

Olly Dobson as Marty McFly (Sean Ebsworth Barnes)
Olly Dobson as Marty McFly (Sean Ebsworth Barnes)

The smartest numbers are a pair of poppy, peppy tunes: one acknowledging the racism, sexism and ignorance of the Fifties; another with Doc and a troupe of white-coated clones envisaging a 21st century where science has ensured there’s “no war, no crime, no disease”. Songs in the style of James Brown and 1950s girl groups, bully Biff’s malapropistic number and the zesty anthem Future Boy compensate for weaker tunes. But really, the odd duff notes hardly matter.

Hugh Coles and Rosanna Hyland as George and Lorraine are excellent foils to Dobson’s wide-eyed charm and Bart’s barking eccentricity. The layers of characterisation here are intriguing: Dobson has Michael J Fox’s body language as well as his vocal quirks down pat, and Coles uncannily captures the loose-limbed weirdness of Crispin Glover in the film. Yet they also make the roles their own. Bart delivers his own delicious riff on the wild-eyed Doc and slips in some delightful visual comedy and wry ad-libs as well.

Visually, the show’s a treat too, with lots of little in-jokes and exuberant swing-style dance routines, including one that’s a flat-out homage to that other 1980s teen classic, Footloose. And let’s be frank: the biggest anxiety was how they’d do the DeLorean, since cars on stage tend to be stationary or ponderous. Happily, the time machine is a triumph of theatrical engineering, instantly recognisable but with an overhaul and an upgrade. Much like the musical itself. Go, enjoy.

Adelphi Theatre, booking to Feb 2022, backtothefuturemusical.com

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