Time for Silliness

'Back to the Past' could use some tweaking, but it's still enjoyable-enough Gaslight Theatre fare

The Gaslight Theatre is dependable for a number of things: certified silliness, great energy from talented performers, fun parodies, music we know and love, family-friendly entertainment and a lot of bang for the buck.

Yes, the shows are formulaic and predictable—you don't go to the Gaslight in search of thought-provoking, soul-enriching theater—and that's just fine. They do what they do very well.

This summer, the group has launched a brand-new show: Back to the Past: It's About Time. The Gaslight folks have built a sizable repertoire of shows over the years, and they at times rerun one with perhaps a bit of tweaking. However, Back to the Past is strutting its stuff for the first time, and its newness shows just a bit.

Gaslight's play is, of course, inspired by (or a riff on or a rip-off of—take your pick) the classic 1985 movie Back to the Future, starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Lloyd plays Dr. Emmett Brown, a mad scientist-type high school teacher who thinks he has devised a way to travel through time. Fox is Brown's student, Marty McFly, who is videotaping his teacher's experiment when Libyan assassins, from whom the mad scientist has stolen the plutonium needed to power the time machine, show up and shoot Brown—and come after the kid. Marty hops into the time machine to escape, revs it up and—whoosh—winds up in 1955. There, he meets the teenage versions of his parents, who seem unable to make the connection that will lead to Marty's existence. So he intervenes, ensuring that they kiss at the school dance, which, Marty knows, is what starts them on their path to romance. Then he and Brown have to find a way to get Marty back to the future.

Gaslight writer/director Peter Van Slyke's version largely follows the movie's storyline, but is simpler and more compact. It is also stripped of some of the movie's more—um—complicated aspects. There are no Libyan assassins; there are merely huffy school officials wanting to keep the inventor's hands off the dangerous "bazillium" he needs to power his machine. And Van Slyke has eliminated one of the movie's quirkier undertones. In the movie, when Marty goes back in time, his mother-to-be develops a crush on him. He knows this is very creepy, although she is, of course, unaware. Van Slyke has erased this bit of weird drama, and substitutes a crush on the young man (called Mickey here) by his 1987 girlfriend's mother (both played by Tarreyn Van Slyke). But it's a passing bit of weirdness given little focus.

Jake Chapman plays Mickey McFry with great gusto, and his terrific energy and vocal skills—along with those of the rest of the cast—satisfactorily propel the story, which is pretty thin. In the Gaslight version, Mickey's dad, Verne—played by the wonderful Mike Yarema—is the school janitor, a decent but insecure guy who has not amounted to much and is bullied by Buzz (Todd Thompson), who hasn't amounted to much, either (and has the worst comb-over in the history of hair).

After fortifying the DeLorean with bazillium, Mickey crashes into 1957 and has to orchestrate the union of his would-be dad with his would-be mom (Sarah Vanek), who is being wooed by Buzz. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that things turn out well for all the McFrys.

The script takes a while to gather momentum. Maybe it's because there's a bit of initial confusion about exactly who the bad guys are, and precisely what's at stake. That's usually established within moments of the curtain rising on the Gaslight stage: There's an obvious good versus evil, and the battle is for the country or the world or the universe. It's just not the same when we figure out that the conflict is merely a matter of existence for Mickey McFry, and the bad guys are an ineffectual school principal and a dumb bully.

Another bit of disappointment comes with how the role of the wacky inventor—here called Professor Bunsen—is handled. In Van Slyke's version of the story, the character doesn't have quite the import that Dr. Brown does, which is understandable enough, but as performed by Joe Hubbard, the doc—who still has plenty of opportunities to shine—is not a very interesting character. About the most-exciting trait we see is his propensity for exclaiming, "Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!" Lame.

Maybe these concerns can be addressed as the show matures. But, really, the story is a vehicle for the performers to exercise their comedic craft and to break into song and dance every few minutes, and this they do with great spirit and solid skills. Under Linda Ackermann's terrific musical direction, the crew excels. And Tom Benson's set design and scene-painting are wonderful.

As is the custom with the Gaslight productions, a themed musical variety show is presented after the play. This time, it features songs and artists of the 1980s, and let's just say it was a decade of music made for parody.

Although there are a few missteps, we can't help but be entertained by the talent and energy of the Gaslight group. Take your kids; take your parents; take your grandparents. This is good fun for everyone.