There’s a moment during the opening song of Back to the Future: The Musical’s second act, when Roger Bart’s Doc Brown finds himself dancing alongside a flurry of hoofers dressed up in lab coats with mini-brainwave helmets affixed to their heads. With a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, Bart looks out at the audience and mouths the words that any sane person in such a situation would mouth: “What the f—?”
If only there were more “What the f—?” moments in this too-faithful musical adaptation of one of the most adored movies ever made. The fact that Back to the Future is so adored is most likely why Bob Gale — who penned the original screenplay and wrote the book for this new stage version playing at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre — felt compelled to stick so closely to the original script. After all, if you’re putting on a Back to the Future production, you’re almost obligated to talk about density, and how heavy things are, and how great Scott is. It’s like a classic rock band having to play same old hits every night on tour. Gotta give the people what they want… or at least what they know.
That feeling of intentional déjà vu extends to the production casting as well, where Hugh Coles does a remarkable Crispin Glover impersonation for his George McFly, and Nathaniel Hackmann completely nails Biff’s bully-without-a-brain vibe. Both accomplish their mission of ably replicating the characters fans fell in love with, but don’t attempt to add their own spin. As Marty’s mom, Lorraine, Liana Hunt is also asked to pretty much do exactly what has already been done in the movie by Lea Thompson.
A lot of this BTTF production plays like a faithful cover version of a classic tune, but the problem is that the best cover songs are the ones that actually change arrangements and take risks. Which is what makes Bart’s Doc Brown stand out so much. The Broadway veteran and Tony winner somehow achieves the seemingly impossible — taking an iconic role originally brought to life by Christopher Lloyd and making it his own.