“I either suck or I’m awesome,” Casey Likes said as he entered Frames, a snazzy bowling alley tucked into a corner of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. “There is no in-between.”
It was shortly after 11 p.m. on a recent Thursday, and Likes, 21, the toothy, wholesome star of the Broadway musical adaptation of “Back to the Future,” was there to bowl as part of a league comprising teams from current and former Broadway shows.
With the alley closed to the public, he strode into the room like the boy-mayor of the place, resplendent in an ultramarine bowling shirt. On his first lap, he greeted friends from “MJ” and “Kimberly Akimbo,” then paused at the bar to order a drink and some fries. He maintains a strict anti-inflammatory diet during the week, but on bowling nights he lets that regime slide. Fries collected, he turned to join some other friends. Clowning, he accidentally streaked a colleague’s hair with ketchup, then helped to clean it. This clumsiness is not new to him. At the opening night party for his Broadway debut, “Almost Famous,” he spilled soda on Joni Mitchell.
Thursday night strikes: Likes is part of a league comprising teams from current and former Broadway shows.Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times
Not many young men can claim that honor. And only a handful have led two Broadway musicals before their 22nd birthday. But Likes has. A mix of the extraordinary and perfectly ordinary, he is a boy-next-door type, as sincere as sunlight, as unthreatening as oatmeal, who can still command a Broadway stage.
“He found his way there because of pure joy,” Cameron Crowe, who worked with him on “Almost Famous,” said. “And that joy is infectious.”
Likes grew up in Chandler, Ariz., a medium-size city southeast of Phoenix. His mother, a former Broadway actress, managed a theater there, and Likes has been onstage since he was 3, playing Tiny Tim to his mother’s Mrs. Cratchit. He also appeared in several local commercials. Sometimes people ask him when he knew he wanted to be an actor. The better question: When didn’t he?
He continued acting all through his childhood. He couldn’t help it. When his elementary school told him that he couldn’t play another lead because other students should have a chance, he headed up the tech crew. In the summer after his junior year of high school, having already starred as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” and Jack in a youth theater production of “Newsies,” he was invited to participate in the Jimmy Awards, a competition for high school musical theater students held in New York City. He didn’t win, but his solo (he performed “Santa Fe” from “Newsies”) caught the attention of a casting director of the Broadway-bound musical “Almost Famous,” who brought him in for an audition. Likes, then 17, attended exactly one day of his senior year, then flew out to join a workshop, completing high school online.
After the musical’s brief run at the Old Globe in San Diego and a pandemic pause, it opened on Broadway last year with Likes as William, a teenage journalist trailing a volatile roots rock band. He was the baby of the show, by several years, which made his experience not so different from William’s — awestruck, out of his element, sometimes lonely.
Though the reviews for the show were generally unenthusiastic (“You can say bad,” Likes said), critics described Likes as appealing, endearing, and as his name demands, likable. The actor felt pressure, wholly self-imposed, to live up to those notices. Toward the end of the run, he began to experience what he describes as unrelated health problems.
“I was worried,” he said. “I was like, ‘Are people going to be disappointed in me?’”
When “Almost Famous” closed, he had planned to take some time off to recover. Instead he was quickly offered “Back to the Future,” another musical based on a popular film. Another musical that kept him constantly onstage. He didn’t hesitate. “If you asked me at any point in my life, ‘Do you want to play Marty McFly on Broadway?’ The answer is obviously yes,” he said. “Like, duh.”
John Rando, who directed the “Back to the Future” musical, hired Likes for his youth, his amiability, his soulful rock tenor. Once previews began, he was also impressed with the confidence that Likes brought to the role and his effortless engagement with viewers.
“Part of his charm is that he’s fearless with an audience,” Rando said.
Likes knows that he has to get the audience on his side, smile by smile, note by note. And he feels that he has to pay homage to the actors who created the roles he plays (Patrick Fugit in the “Almost Famous” movie, Michael J. Fox in the “Back to the Future” franchise), while making the parts his own.
“That might be my little hidden superpower,” he said. “To be able to take the things that made them iconic, distill them and put them in a little smoothie with all the things that make me special.”
A particular flair for bowling is not necessarily one of those things, though Likes did say that at the previous week’s outing he had bowled a strike. This week the “Back to the Future” team, the Pinheads, would play the “Kimberly Akimbo” team, Pinberly Akimbowl. (Other team names of current Broadway shows: Hamilpins, Some Strike It Hot, Sweet Spareolines and, from “Moulin Rouge,” Bowlhemians.)
Asked if his co-star Roger Bart (who plays Doc Brown) was on the team, Likes shook his head and laughed. (As Bart said, in a recent interview, “He’s got one of the great laughs. And the biggest, most contagious smile.”) People like Bart, Broadway veterans with families, don’t come out to bowl. They leave that to their younger colleagues, such as Likes.
“I just want friends!” Likes said.
Indeed, Likes was so busy hobnobbing that he neglected to register with his team and the game was already in progress when he found them at their assigned lane. Apparently this happens often. Asked about the rules of the league, Likes shook his head. “I’ve never played a full game so I truly do not understand,” he said.
An ensemble member allowed him to sub in for one frame. Likes approached the foul line with his typical ease, then bowled a three. (In the interest of fairness, his score was then erased and the frame was bowled again.) He shrugged it off and fed some French fries to a castmate. Two other colleagues staged an impromptu dance-off, trading pirouettes and arabesques.
“I just love it. I love the vibes,” Likes said.
The evening wore on. Likes bowled another frame.
“You got it,” his co-star Jelani Remy called out to him. “You look great.” Likes struck down three pins, then two more. (That frame was also erased.) The Pinheads beat their rivals 1,176 to 943 — though the “Kimberly Akimbo” team was admittedly down a player. A second game began. Likes wouldn’t bowl this one either, he had more circulating to do. He feels that he has spent his whole life getting to a place like this. He is determined to enjoy it.
“It’s the reason I’m wearing the bowling shirt,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this community. I’ve been waiting to be able to do what I love and to be around people that I love.”