Robert Zemeckis’ film of Back to the Future was certainly popular when it was first released in 1985, topping the box office for almost three months and drawing good reviews. However it’s become far more than it seemed to be at the time. For a film that felt like it was mostly entertainment – a lightly comic, action-filled movie for teenagers – it’s turned out to be endlessly open to interpretation.
The film had implicitly conservative politics even though it took a gentle jab at Ronald Reagan – “Ronald Reagan? The actor?! Then who’s vice-president – Jerry Lewis?” Doc Brown exclaimed when Marty told him who was in the White House in 1985 (Writers please note this is funnier than the alternative punchline in this update). The 1980s scenes in the film show the town run-down and dreary in contrast to the bright and chipper 1950s scenes which matches the rosy view that many American Republicans have of the Eisenhower era and whatever the problems in the film’s ‘80s scenes, racism is not depicted as a serious one: This was a film in favour of racial progress, but also sees most of the country’s racial problems as being in the past. Over a quarter of a century later and with the birth of the BlackLivesMatter movement we know that not to be true.
Small-town California teen Marty McFly is thrown back to 1955 when an experiment by his eccentric scientist friend Doc Brown goes awry. Traveling through time in a modified DeLorean car, Marty encounters young versions of his parents and must make sure that they fall in love or he’ll cease to exist. Even more dauntingly, Marty has to return to his own time and save the life of Doc Brown.
So, does the new musical version currently playing at the Adelphi compare favourably? I genuinely don’t know where to start. Perhaps with the good news – technically the show is tremendous and if I was reviewing the production based on the car, the lighting design (by Tim Lutkin) and the visual effects alone this would be a 5 star review.
There are also some very good performances: Roger Bart is outstanding as Doc Brown mainly because he doesn’t simply impersonate the wonderful Christopher Lloyd from the film and Rosanna Hyland is terrific as Marty McFly’s smitten mother, Lorraine. Unfortunately she only has eyes for her own son in a twist that is reminiscent of Sophocles’ Oedipus.
The rest of the main cast seem to think they are members of an adequate for the venue tribute band. Any musical adaptation is always going to live or die on the pivotal role of Marty and Olly Dobson could be Michael J. Fox’s doppelgänger. He is not as endearing as Fox however does have a strong singing voice. In 1985 the infamous Crispin Glover played Marty’s father, George. Glover’s performance in the film is a highlight although interestingly he didn’t appear in the two sequels after criticising the first film and demanding more money. He then successfully sued the producers for using his likeness, without permission, in the futurist follow-up, which also included previously filmed footage of the actor. claiming his rights of publicity were infringed. He was awarded a reported $760,000, and the lawsuit led to new clauses in the Screen Actors Guild collective-bargaining agreements. Hugh Coles has made the brave decision to merely impersonate Glover’s interpretation like many other members of the cast with their roles although director John Rando has to share responsibility for not allowing his actors the freedom to explore their characters for themselves. Coles’ performance is popular amongst the partisan audience however I would have preferred a more individual characterisation.
Unfortunately, the songs with one exception (For the Dreamers sung beautifully by Bart) add absolutely nothing to the story. There are far too many of them and they are more cheesy than a Marks & Spencer’s Macaroni Cheese Toastie served with an extra portion of double cheese.
The script is cliche ridden and for some unknown reason both Star Wars and Dr Who get a mention in 1955. Bob Gale who wrote the book based on his own screenplay written with Zemeckis even gives the pandemic a mention, shoe-horned in with the subtlety of an anvil.
This is a musical that will play well to the followers of a much flawed film and fans of special effects and flying cars. For the rest of you, I would steer well clear.
Reviewer: Patric Kearns