a theatre, film & pop culture review
There’s no reason to adapt Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Oscar-winning film into a musical except for the reason any other film is adapted for the stage: name recognition. It’s pretty clear that audiences at the Winter Garden Theatre aren’t solely your typical Broadway theatergoers; in addition to the usual tourists, seats are filled with New Yawkers and Jersey bros (and their housewives) who chuckle knowingly when slabs of beef are lowered from the fly space, fist bump when Rocky chugs some raw eggs, and cheer when the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art appear. Alright, so maybe there isn’t any fist-bumping, but the night would’ve been ruined for the dad next to me who, in awe, whispered during the egg scene, “He has to do that every night?!” If only he knew the truth: Badass Rocky’s pounding back a girly cocktail of peaches and lychee juice. Sorry, dude.
And so it goes: Rocky the musical, which began its life in an out-of-town tryout in Germany, is incredibly faithful to the film, as adapted by Sly himself with Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray). Hitting all its fans’ sweet spots, no one will walk away complaining that a favorite scene or line was cut (Rocky quips “Yo, Adrian!” no less than fifteen times), even if the supporting cast of characters is a little sketchy at times. In the story of Rocky Balboa, a struggling 29-year-old boxer on the cusp of aging out of the game, finally gets his shot at the big time when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed visits Philadelphia looking for an easy exhibition match. But even if super fans nitpicked, such grievances would vanish instantly in the wake of the jaw-dropping knockout of an ending. Rocky isn’t the smartest musical on the block, but he sure is pretty.
Speaking of pretty: As the Italian Stallion, Andy Karl (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Legally Blonde) boasts Stallone’s tall, dark, lean look (but without those famously droopy eyes) and his slow, goofy drawl. His Rocky tightens and toughens up in the ring, where he’s physically dogged and surefooted. But once he leaves the gym, his posture slackens ever so slightly, and there’s an appealing ease to his gait, as he softens and sweetens. This mix of macho sensitivity is especially endearing in his tenacious courting of the shy and self-conscious Adrian. Played by by Margo Seibert (Broadway debut), Adrien’s reticence is shaped physically, as the actress draws into herself as though escaping into a shell.
The shell metaphor is apt, as Rocky has a thing for turtles — he even sings to them in the embarrassingly lyricked “My Nose Ain’t Broken.” This is a musical, remember? Well, who can blame you if you didn’t — Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s (Ragtime) score packs a weak punch. The love ballads are monotonously pretty, the upbeat tracks lack any kind of driving energy, and the lyrics are vague, with clunky rhymes. Each time a song starts, and while this is Philly in the 1970s, but you’d never know it by the total lack of grit and urban soul. Until, that is (and thank god), “The Eye of the Tiger” kicks in during a training montage in Act II. The Oscar-nominated song, written by the band Survivor at the behest of Sly, was lifted from the third Rocky film, but no matter: It received quite a few “WOOOOOO!!”s and applause as soon as that familiar beat is triggered, injecting the musical with a surge of much-needed vitality (even if the arrangement was a little flat). When the best song in a musical isn’t actually written for that musical, you know you’ve got a dud your hands.
But really, none of this matters because in the end, Rocky goes out like a champ. Throughout, director Alex Timbers keeps the action going at a smooth pace, even if he never quite figures out how to reconcile Rocky‘s more intimate moments with its spectacular ones. But it’s the final sequence that Timber reveals his particular innovative genius: the $4.3 million set by Chris Barreca is a stunner, with a boxing ring that flies out into the orchestra, as theatergoers in the first ten center rows are ushered to stands on the stage, and those to the side are encouraged to stand and cheer on the opponents. Above the stage, in a brilliant LED-lit replica of flashy sports reporting, two commentators are framed by live video of the action below, as camera operators circle the ring (which also revolves), interviewing the managers and boxers during breaks, and filming the uppercuts in close-up. Here’s where Steven Hoggett’s athletic choreography particularly shines, as Karl and Terence Archie (as the cocky champ Apollo Creed) weave and duck each other’s blows, alternating in slow-mo punches and spurts of intense pummeling, while Christopher Akerlind’s multi-colored beams of light swirl around them. This is all fantastically aided by bloody, bruising makeup, and especially by Peter Hylenski’s bombastic sound design, which intensifies the power of each punch, even as the music pounds and envelopes you, just as it would at an actual boxing match.
Even though you know exactly how it all ends, that final bout is twenty minutes of heart-racing, thrilling action that brings you anxiously to the edge of your seat. Does it make up for the previous two hours of mediocre material? Not exactly, but just as with the faithful book, the exorbitant budget is well-placed to please. The dad next to me, mid-fight, leaned over and with a wink, whispered: “Guess we had really good seats after all!” My smile in response was just as giddily enthusiastic. Sure, Rocky‘s got heart, but love isn’t the real winner here; spectacle is.