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REVIEW: ‘Future’ dazzles technically, if not musically

WHAT: “Back to the Future: The Musical”

WHEN: Through July 11. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: KeyBank State Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1515 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $39 to $129 and are available online at playhousesquare.org and by calling 216-241-6000.

CLEVELAND — After watching the North American tour of “Back to the Future: The Musical” Friday at KeyBank State Theatre, it’s no surprise the Broadway production was nominated for best scenic design of a musical at Sunday’s Tony Awards.

It’s also no surprise it wasn’t nominated for best new musical.

The show running through July 11 at Playhouse Square certainly is eye-popping and a technical marvel, but it’s more like watching an amusement park ride than a theatrical production.

The musical is based on the 1985 movie of the same name about Marty McFly, a 1980s teen who accidentally gets transported back to 1955 via a time-traveling DeLorean created by eccentric inventor Doc Brown. While there, he disrupts the event that brought his future parents together, which threatens to erase his existence.

“Back to the Future” was a huge hit in 1985, spawning two sequels, and the musical — with a book by the film’s co-screenwriter Bob Gale and new songs by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard — certainly scratches the nostalgic itch for fans of the 1985 movie and that era of films in general.

The musical number “Put Your Mind to It” between Marty and his future father essentially is the “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” dance-teaching scene in “Footloose.”

I loved “Back to the Future” when it came out and showed it to my kids when they were old enough to appreciate it. When I purged more than half of my DVD collection a while back, the BTTF trilogy were among the films I kept.

That said, I haven’t watched it in at least a decade, but the musical packed in every expected moment from the movie. I didn’t leave thinking, “Why didn’t they include …?”

If anything, the musical and the performances hew too closely to the original. Caden Brauch plays Marty McFly with the same rising-in-pitch catch in his voice that Michal J. Fox has, the one that made the young actor sound like he was still dealing with the after effects of puberty.

Burke Swanson creates a physical and funny George McFly, but it verges on Crispin Glover cosplay.

Broadway veteran Don Stephenson does the best job of delivering the manic eccentricity of Doc Brown without feeling like he’s mimicking the actor who originated the role on screen (Christopher Lloyd).

They benefit from familiarity, but Huey Lewis & the News’ “Power of Love” and “Back in Time” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” all make a more memorable impression than any of the new songs.

The best of the bunch is the first act finale “Something About the Boy,” which is beautifully sung by Zan Berube, although the scene itself is so frantic that it distracts a bit from her vocal performance.

Where the musical shines is in the technical elements. There is a full-size DeLorean on stage, and lighting, rear-screen projections and other theatrical magic do an impressive job of making it feel like that car is going 88 miles per hour on the State Theatre stage.

This is a story that wasn’t conceived with the stage in mind, and director John Rando and the creative team essentially opt to recreate the cinematic experience. The cross-cutting between Doc Brown climbing the clock tower and Marty racing to perfectly time the DeLorean’s arrival to coincide with a lighting bolt is a dazzling piece of technical wizardry.

It certainly doesn’t feel as if the show has been scaled down for the tour. And the tour or Broadway may be the only opportunity to ever see it. It’s hard to imagine any regional, college or community theater being able to strip down the production to be affordable to stage, and what would be the point when the flashy sheen is far more impressive than the bones upon which it is built.

All of that creativity doesn’t hide that “Back to the Future” is made almost exclusively for those looking to revisit an old favorite through a different medium. Musical theater fans who never saw the movie or are ambivalent about it may consider it a bumpy ride.

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