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‘Back to the Future’ on Broadway is on a race for jokes

NEW YORK — Stories about time-travel are seductive. We’re all trapped in our aging bodies and our creaking moment. And we all fantasize about leaving both of them behind, at least for a few hours at, say, the Winter Garden Theatre.

“This is heavy,” Marty McFly would say. But he doesn’t direct on Broadway.

Those existential concerns are nowhere to be found at the new musical version of the 1985 Robert Zemeckis movie “Back to the Future,” the show a frenetic new spectacle from London with a flying DeLorean car essentially re-creating the role played, years ago, by a helicopter in “Miss Saigon.” Except the chopper was not piloted by a grinning Roger Bart.

Frenetically paced, relentlessly comedic and visually chaotic, “Back to the Future” is aimed squarely at middle America; at the performance I saw, it was very clear many had never before been inside a Broadway theater. God bless it for that — not everything should have to be Stephen Sondheim or “Parade,” and “Back to the Future” is an iconic American movie with the kind of pre-awareness drawing power that will put plenty of butts in seats whatever some churlish critic writes — but the show still misses opportunity after opportunity to make people actually feel.

Given the movie’s success in that very arena, that flaw is as confounding as it is frustrating. And it has attacked American musicals of late like kudzu on the side of a freeway in Georgia. “Only connect! Only connect!” you want to scream at the stage as the show races through another scene.

The problem here is an age-old one: a lack of truth. The two eras of this show, the 1980s and the 1950s, are not based on those actual eras but on a cartoonish version of them. Every 1950s cliché is on offer in Tim Hatley’s design, in the choreography by Chris Bailey and, above all, in most all of the acting. It is as if the characters all were living in some parody version of Hill Valley, California, the town where young Marty travels back in time after befriending a crazy mad scientist, only to meet his own horny mom with designs on the handsome guy she has no idea is her own visiting son. The 1980s are treated much the same. There are laughs to be found from turning everything into jokesville, and director John Rando surely mines them, but entirely at the cost of the central transformational poignancy baked into the show.

You have to pull for Marty, his quest to save his dad (Hugh Coles, who can be very funny) from Gaston-like bully Biff (Nathaniel Hackmann) and avoid being seduced by his mom (Liana Hunt) and his desire to get back home to his girlfriend Jennifer (Mikaela Secada), but you just don’t, especially.

I don’t think that’s the fault of the actor, Casey Likes, a fine singer and an honest actor; it’s just this jumpy, nervous show decided to go another way, even though the book writer is Bob Gale, who wrote the movie with Zemeckis.

But here’s the thing, folks: “Back to the Future” actually has one of the strongest and tightest stories of any movie of its era, but all the famous fun stuff about Marty, Doc and the DeLorean time machine really was subservient to how well Zemeckis explored our shared fantasy of going back in time to fix our mistakes and effect transformation. People go to musicals for the possibility of transcendence: this show could have offered it to them and still flown the turbocharged car above their heads. And it could have played in a lot more sophisticated a way with the time between the movie and the musical.

Alas, the musical constantly makes easier, cheaper choices, dropping its own aesthetic rules if it serves a joke in the moment. Bubbles appear in the house for no reason. The fourth wall is dropped and rebuilt every other scene. Nothing ever pauses for reflection, for vulnerability, for hope. Even the ballads in Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard’s serviceable score feel rushed and unwilling ever to go below the surface. This thing just never breathes.

At times, the wackiness is sufficiently wacky that it appeals, such as a truly bizarre dance number from Bailey that opens the second act featuring Bart and a bunch of weirdly clad dancers doing god knows what.

And Bart, who is a phenomenal musical-comedy professional, operates in his own aesthetic universe, sliding in and out of the show with immensely shrewd panache, committing and then not committing to the proceedings and letting the audience know exactly what he is doing and soaking up their love.

His work, along with the scene where the fab onstage DeLorean races up to the requisite 88 miles per house, represent the show’s only major pleasures.

“Back to the Future: The Musical” plays at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, New York.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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