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Rocky. Winter Garden Theatre (see Broadway). Book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Choreography by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine. Directed by Alex Timbers. With Andy Karl, Margo Seibert, Terence Archie. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.
Rocky: In brief
One of the latest films to get the Broadway treatment is this iconic portrait of a Philadelphia thug chasing his boxing dreams. The champ’s got a strong team behind him: golden-boy director Alex Timbers, songwriting team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, book writer Thomas Meehan, and (cowriting and producing) original movie star and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone.
Rocky: Theater review by David Cote
Every few years, a piece of stagecraft drops so many jaws and pops so many eyes, it becomes a Broadway insta-icon: The Phantom of the Opera’s glorious falling chandelier; the awe-inspiring march of animals in The Lion King’s “Circle of Life.” In recent years, the nonpareil has been green-skinned Elphaba levitating while hitting the high F in Wicked’s “Defying Gravity.” Add to that list the spectacular final bout in Rocky. The 20-minute closing coup (spoilers ahead) brings a section of the audience onto the stage, drops in jumbo screens, extends a boxing ring over the orchestra and puts on one hell of a fight before the bloodied guy gets the girl—bellowing her name, of course. Director Alex Timbers throws every ingredient into the pot—immersive staging, live video, slo-mo choreography, gruesomely realistic makeup—to send us staggering into the night punch-drunk, love-struck and begging for more.
Sorry to cut to the chase (as it were), but you know what they say: Give them a boffo ending and they’ll forgive everything that came before. But here’s the thing: The rest of Rocky doesn’t need too much forgiveness. The score is uneven and some characters sketchy, but the piece has tremendous heart and narrative drive. In the end, Timbers achieves a splendid balance of epic sweep and gritty intimacy: storytelling with emotional punch and visceral thrills.
If the source material weren’t already strong, the adaptation would not have had a chance. But Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Oscar-winning movie, the underdog love song of sloe-eyed, slur-voiced Rocky Balboa, has innate appeal. Rocky (Andy Karl) chases the dream of pivot-jabbing his way from bum to contender, even as he shrugs off the contempt of crusty gym owner Mickey (Dakin Matthews) and loan shark Gazzo (Eric Anderson), who uses the fighter as collection muscle. Outside the ring, Rocky woos Adrian (Margo Seibert), an introverted woman who works in a pet shop. When heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed (Terence Archie) parachutes into Philly to stage a publicity match and must scramble to find an opponent, he settles on the unknown Balboa, the self-dubbed “Italian Stallion.” Cue the training montage and roll out the museum stairs.
Book writers Thomas Meehan and Stallone tailor the screenplay to deepen our emotional attachment to Rocky and Adrian—retaining the humor and pathos that are already there. They also expand the film’s flatter comic-relief figures. Adrian’s bullying brother, Paulie, is still a boozy, hot-tempered rascal, but as played by gravelly lug Danny Mastrogiorgio, he’s not so different from Rocky, a good guy given rough edges from life’s grind. Adrian’s coworker in the pet shop and Paulie’s long-suffering love interest, Gloria, is amply filled out by the vivacious Jennifer Mudge.
The story’s cinematic transitions come courtesy of the finest stage hydraulics around, whisking us from Mickey’s gym to Rocky’s cramped studio or to Shamrock Meats, where racks of hooked beef descend from the rafters for our pugilist hero to pummel. Set designer Christopher Barreca fully exploits the cavernous dimensions of the Winter Garden Theatre—boxing rings, living rooms and offices glide in and out. To theatricalize the movie’s classic workout sequences, Timbers (and special-effects designer Jeremy Chernick) dazzle the eye with swooping stage machinery and location-shot video. Taking a page from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, they deploy actors in matching sweats and hoodies to portray multiple Rockys racing across the stage.
But this is still a musical, and the score is a problematic element. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime) have an admirable 30-year track record, but one wishes a punchier, down-and-dirtier team were behind the songs. Even so, some numbers work: Adrian’s haunting, hushed ballad of escape, “Raining,” and Rocky’s anthemic first-act closer, “Fight from the Heart.” Other tunes come across as generic placeholders: pseudofunk for Creed and his groovy entourage (“Patriotic”) and a nostalgic show tune for Mickey (“In the Ring”). Perhaps you’re wondering about the iconic theme from the film (Bill Conti’s fanfare-and-disco “Gonna Fly Now”) and Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger”? They’re in there, don’t worry.
Timbers and his team of visual wizards (which includes choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine; video designers Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina; and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, marshaling stadium-style kliegs) prove, amazingly, that music doesn’t have to be the most important element in a musical. Vibrant tableaux and good casting matter as much.
Karl delivers an utterly winning central performance: a sexy, sweet and touchingly self-doubting Rocky. He’s not only bulked up for the role, he calls on his sly comic timing (last seen in The Mystery of Edwin Drood) to build a fully dimensional, fully lovable hero. He does the Stallone mumble, but makes it his own, transcending impersonation or caricature. Seibert is also a lovely presence, Adrian’s slow-boiling passion for Rocky marvelous to behold. For his part, the impressively ripped Archie has fewer layers to explore as flashy narcissist Creed, but he’s enormous fun as the cock of the walk who learns that the hometown patsy is not such a pushover.
The last time Broadway welcomed a property this expensive and ambitious (the production is capitalized at $16.5 million) it was the epochal flop Spider-Man. No one misses that aesthetic and financial train wreck. Some Broadway fans or pundits might even pray for the megamusical to go away and make room for smaller, more intimate fare. Or they might sneer at a corporate spectacle that so lavishly exalts an underdog. Such anti-showbiz pretension misses the point: Rocky has known poverty and shame. He is not averse to making money or riding the fame train. But he knows that love matters most. And this show, for all its knockout visuals and steroidal bombast, protects a core of sweetness and a love of primal storytelling. For every loser, lover and fighter out there, good news: Rocky is total theater and a total rush; it goes the distance.—Theater review by David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote