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NEW YORK – “Nobody leaves the theater humming the scenery.” That old Broadway wisecrack, often attributed to Richard Rodgers, implies that no amount of eye-popping visuals in a show can overcome an unmemorable score. Rocky may be the exception. While the songs in this musicalization of the career-making 1976 Sylvester Stallone movie come and go without leaving much of an impression, the stage magic that director Alex Timbers and set designer Christopher Barreca work with the finale fight is so visceral and exhilarating that it sends the audience out on a high. Of course, having an indestructible story with underdog characters worth rooting for doesn’t hurt either.
Broadway has seen its share of boxing dramas, from Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy to Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. Mike Tyson even weighed in two years back with his solo show, Undisputed Truth. Aside from the 1964 musical adaptation of the Odets play that starred Sammy Davis Jr., however, pugilism has rarely been the inspiration for song and dance. But Stallone’s screenplay for the best picture Oscar winner that launched a thousand sequels makes it less a sports film than a misfit romance and sentimental human-interest tale. A down-on-his-luck lunkhead with a good heart gets an unexpected shot at the American Dream, which is not such a stretch for musical treatment.
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But while the book, co-written by Stallone with Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray), is a serviceable Xerox of the movie, the show is a mismatch of material and musical team. There’s little evidence of any real connection to the story in the songs by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, best known for their gorgeous melodic work and vivid musical storytelling on the historical pageant, Ragtime.
The ballads here are pretty in a nondescript way, but the music is often inessential and rarely propulsive. That task is left to existing tunes associated with the film franchise, notably Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and Bill Conti’s “Theme from Rocky,” mercifully without the cheesy “Gonna Fly Now” lyrics. And while the City of Brotherly Love in 1975 is a setting that seems to cry out for some sweet Philadelphia soul, even the flashy African-American World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Terence Archie) only gets a pallid facsimile of it in his big number, “Undefeated Man.”
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The ace up the show’s sleeve, however, is inventive director Timbers and his design team, along with talented lead Andy Karl, who sticks close enough to the Stallone model in his characterization as Rocky Balboa while at the same time injecting fresh vitality and humor into the role. (He also ups the man-candy factor in his satin boxing trunks.)
The story at this point is pretty much carved in stone: A failed boxer from blue-collar Southside Philly, Rocky is on the discard heap even of low-rent local gym owner Mickey (Dakin Matthews). He makes a little cash collecting debts for a loan shark (Eric Anderson), but lacks the ruthless streak to break thumbs on command. His tender side is evident in his clumsy but determined attempts to court Adrian (Margo Seibert), the painfully shy pet shop girl who lives with her roughneck brother Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Rocky’s professional name, the Italian Stallion, catches the attention of Creed’s management when a challenger drops out of a New Year’s Day championship match, and that fluke chance gives him a shot at the title. Of course, what the overnight neighborhood folk hero is really fighting for is his self-esteem and that of every perceived working-class loser.
The delicate chemistry between Karl and Seibert breathes warmth into their outsider romance, and Adrian’s solos, the melancholy “Raining” and “I’m Done,” in which she finally asserts herself and stands up to overbearing Paulie, are among the better numbers. But aside from the central couple, none of the other characters comes close to recapturing the colorful personality they had onscreen.
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However, Timbers and the creative team have successfully repurposed many of the movie’s most iconic moments for the stage, which are greeted with a roar of approval from the audience. Those include Rocky pummeling sides of beef in a meat locker at the butcher shop where Paulie works, or jogging up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That scene is part of an extended training sequence that takes a leaf out of the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark playbook, using multiple Rocky stand-ins dressed in identical sweats and hoodies to create a cinematic montage effect.
The impressive fluidity, detail and imagination of the stagecraft to a large extent compensate for the fact that as a musical, the show rarely sings. Timbers and Barreca work seamlessly with lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, video designers Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina, and special effects chief Jeremy Chernick to create a multimedia visual field in constant motion, with a balletic complexity to the scene changes that must have been a logistic nightmare to coordinate. Mickey’s grungy gym and the South Philly streets are rendered with rich, grimy textures; Rocky’s shabby apartment is the quintessential no-hoper domain (yes, he still has the turtle terrarium); and the pet store is a thing of beauty with its wall of aquariums full of live fish.
In last season’s downtown sensation, Here Lies Love (returning to the Public Theater April 14), Timbers ingeniously had the audience switch places with the performers at a crucial point in the action, providing a radical shift in perspective. In Rocky, enhanced technology allows him to take that concept several steps further with breathtaking results, and any grumbling about the musical’s shortcomings give way to open-mouthed wonder in its spectacular final twenty minutes.
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In simplified terms, we stop being a theater audience and become spectators at the match, with several rows of the orchestra ushered onto stadium-style stage seating while the regulation-size boxing ring flips out into the house and a massive four-sided Jumbotron descends from above. Movement maestro Steven Hoggett (Once, American Idiot) has choreographed the Rocky-Apollo faceoff with remarkable realism, making economical use of simulated slow-mo to heighten the suspense as Creed’s glamazons strut around the ring holding up numbers to mark the passing of each round. Live video coverage adds to the immediacy and multiple screens urge, “Let’s make some noise!” But a lot of folks caught up in the excitement seemed to require little encouragement.
For a show that on many levels is a miss, that climactic sequence is a thrilling knockout. Ticket sales have been somewhat disappointing in previews, suggesting resistance to such nontraditional musical-theater subject matter. But if marketed successfully, Rocky could become for boys and their dads what Wicked is to the girl contingent.
Venue: Winter Garden Theatre, New York
Cast: Andy Karl, Margo Seibert, Terence Archie, Dakin Matthews, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Jennifer Mudge, Eric Anderson, Adrian Aguilar, Michelle Aravena, James Brown III, Sam J. Cahn, Kevin Del Aguila, Ned Eisenberg, Sasha Hutchings, David Andrew Macdonald, Vasthy Mompoint, Vince Oddo, Okieriete Onaodowan, Adam Perry, Kristin Piro, Luis Salgado, John Schiappa, Wallace Smith, Jenny Lee Stern
Director: Alex Timbers
Book: Thomas Meehan, Sylvester Stallone, based on the MGM/United Artists film
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Set designer: Christopher Barreca
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Costume designer: David Zinn
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Video designers: Dan Scully, Pablo N. Molina
Special effects designer: Jeremy Chernick
Music director: Chris Fenwick
Orchestrations: Stephen Trask, Doug Besterman
Vocal arrangements: Stephen Flaherty
Choreographers: Steven Hoggett, Kelly Devine
Producers: Joop van den Ende, Bill Taylor
Presented by Stage Entertainment USA, Sylvester Stallone, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, The Shubert Organization, Kevin King-Templeton, James L. Nederlander & Terry Allen Kramer, Roy Furman, Cheryl Wiesenfeld, Zane Tenkel, Lucky Champions, Scott Delman, JFL Theatrical/Judith Ann Abrams, Latitude Link, Waxman/Shin/Bergere, Lauren Stevens/Josh Goodman
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