In London, Musicals That Stay True to a Brand

In London, Musicals That Stay True to a Brand

LONDON — There’s a human story embedded within the shiny toy that is “Back to the Future: The Musical,” which opened Monday night at the Adelphi Theater here. But you pretty much know from the start that a revved-up audience is saving its greatest roar of recognition for a certain prop.

That would be the whiz-bang car so beloved from the 1985 blockbuster film that it’s the calling card for the Tony-winning director John Rando’s transcription of the film on the West End. (A run in Manchester in March 2020 was cut short by the pandemic.)

And so it proves. Scarcely has the vaunted DeLorean made its way onto a set by Tim Hatley — which itself resembles a mammoth LED-framed computer console — before the theater erupts in cheers that back in the past, so to speak, might have been reserved for legends of the stage. Its gull-wing doors all but ready to take flight, the vehicle later soars into the auditorium, doing a somersault in the process. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” eat your heart out.

The result honors a hard-working array of lighting, sound and video designers — not to mention Chris Fisher’s illusions — and recalls the era of the 1980s mega-musical and its dependence on visual effects: the falling chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera” and the whirling helicopter in “Miss Saigon,” to cite just two examples.

What about the actors? “Back to the Future”’s opening performance, as it happened, suffered a last-minute cast replacement when its (terrific) co-star, Roger Bart, was sidelined that day by a positive Covid-19 diagnosis. The role of the wild-haired Doc Brown — immortalized by Christopher Lloyd onscreen — has been given over temporarily to Bart’s understudy, Mark Oxtoby. I caught Bart’s gleeful performance, manic and unexpectedly touching, at the final preview.

Still, can you imagine the mayhem that might ensue were the show’s mechanized capabilities to shut up shop? That would bring to grief a stage venture that, as with so many films turned stage musicals, exists essentially to honor the brand. As with “Frozen,” the Disney extravaganza that opened on a newly bustling West End a mere five days earlier, the creators must give obsessives a reasonable facsimile of the movie while attempting to find something uniquely stage-worthy to what, after all, is a franchise. (Both musicals go heavy on the merchandise.)

The need to think outside the celluloid box explains the 16 new songs from the Grammy winners Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard currently overburdening a story known onscreen in musical terms for Huey Lewis and the News rocking out “The Power of Love.” That ever-welcome rouser shows up just in time to fuel a clap-happy finale.

The new songs, by contrast, feel largely like filler, though Bart lands the appealingly plaintive “For the Dreamers,” and Olly Dobson brings boundless energy and a strong voice to that wannabe rocker Marty McFly — the teenage time-traveler played in the movie by Michael J. Fox. “Something About That Boy” has an up-tempo catchiness appropriate to the era of “Grease” to which the material pays homage, and several numbers reference time specifically, as befits a sci-fi narrative in which the skateboard-happy Marty is forced to repair nothing less than the space-time continuum.

And yet it’s the DeLorean again that prompts a double-page program spread explaining such vehicular specifics as temporal field stabilizers, a Tachyon Pulse Generator and, most crucially, a Flux Capacitor. That last item gets a workout as the engine — you’ll forgive that word choice — that drives the plot when an anxious Marty hurtles back to 1955 in an effort to bring his parents together so as to ensure that his own existence isn’t erased.

Because 1985 is by now itself long ago, the book by Bob Gale (a co-author, with Robert Zemeckis, of the film) has sensibly jettisoned the Libyan terrorists who figure in the movie. Instead, we get a rather desperate-seeming reference to the current appetite for kale, and a tongue-in-cheek allusion to 2020 as a time without war, crime or disease.

I hadn’t recalled the degree of Oedipal depth to a story that finds Marty resisting advances from his own mother, Lorraine (a clear-voiced Rosanna Hyland), in order to bring her under the romantic 1950s sway of the geeky George (an immediately appealing Hugh Coles). This slow-blooming charmer, given in song to rhyming “myopia” and “utopia,” is the one who belongs in Lorraine’s arms, not her own son.

A bromance develops along the way between Marty and Doc, a mentor of sorts who in this iteration breaks the fourth wall more than once to express dismay at finding himself surrounded by choreographer Chris Bailey’s high-stepping chorus line. The surprise, in context, is understandable. After all, it can’t be easy folding dance into a scenario in which the car gets all the best moves.

“Frozen” induces gasps of its own when the vast stage of the Theater Royal Drury Lane gives itself over to a shimmering icescape against which the magic-endowed Elsa can belt out “Let It Go” — the Oscar-winning power ballad from the 2013 animated film that sends the audience into the intermission on a high. But for all the transformations wrought by Christopher Oram’s set, the emphasis remains firmly on the characters, not least the reined-in Elsa (Samantha Barks) and her comparatively harebrained younger sister, Anna, whose bumptious peppiness is meant to seem endearing but, I’m afraid, left me cold onscreen and again onstage. (A perky Stephanie McKeon, it should be said, delivers what the part requires.)

It’s Barks’s superbly realized Elsa who benefits most from this reconsideration of a show that was the first Broadway title forced by the pandemic to call it quits. Having had time to look at the material afresh, the director Michael Grandage and his team have beefed up the fraught emotional state of a snow queen at savage odds with her own powers and given the siblings a duet, “I Can’t Lose You,” that places this show on a continuum set by “Wicked” and centered around a literal or figurative sisterhood.

The plotting is still peculiar: Anna and Elsa’s parents die at sea, a loss that seems barely to register, and a lot of the shifts in behavior look decidedly arbitrary. Oh, and how else to explain that second-act opener, “Hygge,” involving the ensemble emerging semi-clad from a sauna, beyond giving the choreographer Rob Ashford something to do?

A definite bonus to the London production is the restoration for a reported 60 million pounds of the theater itself, which now looks sufficiently luxuriant that I, for one, might be cautious about inviting many thousands of people through such elegantly appointed portals. “Frozen” is sure to attract innumerable families throughout its run. Let’s just hope these hungry and thirsty patrons treat their newly ravishing surroundings with respect.

Back to the Future: The Musical. Directed by John Rando. Adelphi Theater.

Frozen. Directed by Michael Grandage. Theater Royal Drury Lane.

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