The Daily Telegraph
Great Scott! It’s a plutoniumpowered feel-good triumph
Back to the Future: The Musical
I★★★★★ t sounds impossible, doesn’t it? I don’t mean time travel: some bright spark will figure that out. No, I mean bringing Back to the Future, one of the best-loved films of the 1980s, to the stage in musical form. For, the need for songs aside, who can compete with Michael J Fox? He made his name as Marty Mcfly, the skateboarding high-schooler propelled from the fictional town of Hill Valley, California, back to 1955, thanks to a plutonium-powered Delorean.
Then factor in the contribution on screen of Christopher Lloyd, who played the boggle-eyed boffin “Doc”
Brown across the trilogy, and the casting challenge alone is fiendish. On top of that, you’ve got to match the special effects, and convey an automobile racing at high speed, de- and re-materialising. I approached this show (which cost £7.5 million) fearing that I was set to watch a time-honoured flick become a hideous theatrical experiment gone wrong.
I needn’t have worried for a nanosecond. The excitement builds before curtain-up, the motherboard-styled auditorium pulsing with tributaries of light. Then Olly Dobson’s Mcfly – at 29, a dead ringer for Fox, and rivalling his zestful charisma – pokes his head into Doc Brown’s gadget-cluttered lair. His simple inquiry, “Doc?”, gets a cheer of delighted recognition from the crowd. It’s clear that the love brought to the theatre is equalled by the devotion of those behind the project.
They include Bob Gale, who wrote the screenplay with the film’s director Robert Zemeckis. (The latter has kept an eye on things, though John Rando directs.) They’ve filleted the script for its best bits. Composer and lyricist Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard have then got under the bonnet and found much else to tease out. For instance, the thuggish Biff ’s head-knocking taunt (“Hello, anybody home?”) has yielded a tragicomic song in which Marty laments his spineless dad (spot-on, pitiable buffoonery from Hugh Coles).
The clever concept of the original, at once joyously escapist and jeopardyfilled, entails turning the clock back so that the future-savvy protagonist becomes a surrogate parent to his own unwitting folks. The musical makes a canny song-and-dance out of his predicament, as he wards off his mother’s instinctual advances and coaxes his father from inhibition (since, if he doesn’t, he’ll never be born). It somehow savours the weirdness of Marty teaching his progenitor how to stand up for himself and make his moves, without being unsavoury.
The numbers don’t sound like Grammy-winners. Still, while there are throwbacks to old Broadway and flash-forwards to futuristic beats (in the irony-laden showstopper 21st Century, the smartly choreographed songs augment the 1950s period outlook.
It’s a shame that a positive Covid test saw Roger Bart defer to understudy Mark Oxtoby on opening night (the date of his return is yet to be confirmed), because on the evidence of the press preview, he’s perfect as Doc Brown, giving us wide eyes, rasping intonations (“Great Scott!”), and a warmth of his own.
The show would be a non-starter without the thrilling vehicle action, and thanks to video and illusionist wizardry, the steam-spouting Delorean proves the star of the night. The way it skids into view from nowhere and takes off over the stalls at the end, achieving a kind of 3D Hollywood magic, is enough to have you running to the gift stand, looking to buy a flux capacitor.
This is a feel-good triumph. Is it the most sophisticated musical around? No, but it’s no less exhilarating as an allAmerican entertainment drive-through than Hamilton is. And it so honours the benign ethos of those 1980s blockbuster movies, it invites further inroads into the canon. Next stop,