‘Back to the Future’ Review: West End Musical Is Lots of Fun Despite Flaws

By David Benedict

Popular on Variety

In recent decades, numerous musical have arrived in London with outsized production values swamping the material, leading critics to wish for time machines so that they can fast-forward to the inevitable, hugely scaled-down revival in an off-West End house where the writing can be savored. “Back To The Future — the Musical” is not one of those shows. Despite its many flaws, not least a merely serviceable score, Tim Hatley’s stunning, multi-dimensional design — thrillingly meshing physical production, lighting, projection, sound and hydraulics — lifts what threatened to be a movie retread into a live entertainment triumph.

What you need to know is that Einstein doesn’t exist. No, not a counterfactual philosophical premise: I’m talking Doc Brown’s dog, or, rather, the lack thereof. That — and the means of Doc’s “death” being contaminated by plutonium, not killed by gunmen — are pretty much the only plot changes of a night that, mostly, doesn’t so much follow every move of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original blockbuster as to stick to it like glue. Against expectations, the lack of originality turns out not to matter.

Even before the lights go down, it’s clear that this production is intent on making spectacle respectable, with giant LED display panels rising up from above the proscenium and out and across the walls of the orchestra. But the initial excitement is sandbagged by the opening sequences.

The film’s dogged exposition is kept intact and every scene and moment of the movie, often with identical dialogue and props, initially suggests an evening in thrall to the original. Worry creeps in around the edges. Audience members are happily applauding what, their memories? Even Glen Ballard’s added songs — 26 listed in total, including movie numbers such as “The Power Of Love” — are too generic to be memorable, merely illustrating states of mind rather than firing the imagination or touching anything beneath the carefully veneered surface.

Every cast member acts like the winner of a lookalike competition, complete with every move and mannerism of their movie counterpart. And too many of them have been directed to play out to the audience, so much so that they barely stop short at winking at us. For all the neatness, expectations begin to founder. Until, that is, the arrival of the car.

Initially persuasive, Hatley’s masterly re-construction of the firing-on-all-cylinders (and then some) DeLorean is shockingly exciting as it speeds off. Harnessing the flow of Hatley’s physical set-pieces, Finn Ross’s fleet, flashing video and projections, Tim Lutkin’s masterly lighting and Gareth Owen’s explosive sound design (encompassing everything from dynamic strings to Alan Silvestri’s movie score), John Rando’s production harnesses every element and, as it hits the crucial 88mph, zaps the audience between the eyes and ears to a roar of delight.

From there on in, everything — pun intended — moves up a gear.

Marty’s 1955 town is “Schmigadoon”-perfect, complete with a populace dedicated to over-bright singing and dancing. This allows songs (and the costume design) to poke fun at 1950s-styling, some of which makes up for the fitful choreography that is filled with neat moves but precious little momentum.

The pastiche songs work best, as when Lorraine falls for “Calvin” and a girl group trio pops up from behind the curtains to accompany her. But otherwise, the songs are more pop than theater. Instead of deepening or driving forward, they state and re-state a case, with anodyne and/or mis-stressed lyrics: “I can’t wait to be/ In the twenty-first cent-u-ry” — which is a number of knowing nonsense put there solely to open the second act.

Yet all those problems disappear beneath the determination of the production team to deliver a good time to its audience. After the intermission, the pace picks up considerably and the wit sharpens. Cedric Neal is terrific as the mayor and unleashes seriously hot vocals as bandleader Marvin Berry. Instead of locking Marty into the trunk of a car, Biff tosses him into a dumpster — which elicits the evening’s best new joke. As Marvin releases him, he looks back at Marty asking, “Is this what they call white trash?”

As Marty, Olly Dobson never quite relaxes into the role. But although he’s haunted by Michael J. Fox’s performance, he ticks all the requisite boxes. By contrast, while Roger Bart perfectly captures Christopher Lloyd’s wide-eyed, manic intensity, he transcends mere impersonation. Bart generates huge laughs as he ricochets around the set. But it’s his control of time that captivates, as he switches like lightning between machine-gun-fast delivery and wonderfully elongated pauses of stupefaction forever filled with comic intensity. Every time he’s on stage, the temperature rises.

Like the recently opened “Frozen,” playing around the corner at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, “Back To the Future” is not just a movie that people have seen; it’s a property watched and rewatched. That’s as much a curse as a blessing. It’s a tribute to the invention of the design team that the action sequences are so hair-raising that even the hardest heart capitulates. Is it a great musical? Absolutely not. Is it a great night out? Oh yes. You’ll believe a car can fly.