Halfway through Rocky, a crowd-pleasing musical that’s a faithful stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1976 movie, the lights flicker to show Rocky Balboa, his face shrouded in a grey hoodie, training for his chance-in-a-lifetime boxing match against the heavyweight champion of the world. Rocky is shadow-boxing upstage, then the lights blink again and he is working out downstage, then there are a dozen Rockies all in grey sweatpants and hoodies are lithely punching and skipping and leaping. An unbidden association suddenly springs uncontrollably to mind: The ensemble all dressed like Rocky recall the ensemble all dressed like Spider-Man in “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”
The two musicals have much in common, superficially. Both are based on an iconic brand, a money-making franchise in another medium. Both are a story about a main character that everyone considers a loser, who starts off as a shmo – as an everyday you or me — and becomes a hero….and gets the girl-next-door of their dreams. Both end in a climactic fight scene. The different theater artists adapting both thought it a good idea to translate the story using elaborate stagecraft with state-of-the art technology.
But there’s a crucial difference.
In “Song of Spider-Man,” playwright Glen Berger’s account of his involvement in the Spider-Man musical, he writes that the most important lesson he learned from what he considers a fiasco was: “Before something can be brilliant, it has to be competent.”
Julie Taymor and U2 wanted “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” to be brilliant, but, Glen Berger is saying, the musical wasn’t even competent.
“Rocky” is competent. Nearly everything about it works. The direction by Alex Timbers is smooth and professional, if not as innovative as some of his previous work (Here Lies Love; Peter and the Starcatcher; Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.) The songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical) have vitality if not originality nor especially memorable melodies, and they’re supplemented by Bill Conti’s familiar rousing “Gonna Fly Now” (the tune when Rocky climbs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and “Eye of the Tiger” from the movies.
The story is credited to Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers) and Sylvester Stallone, the original screenwriter and star of the film. No fan of the original movie is likely to object. The performers — some two dozen strong — do a fine job, not a single wrong note (literally or figuratively) among them.
Above all, the eye-catching, detailed design and complicated stagecraft provide a uniquely theatrical form of entertainment, without obviously undermining or overwhelming the story. And everything ran without a hitch the night I saw it.
Is “Rocky” brilliant? I wouldn’t say so, no. But I don’t think it tries to be, and that may be one of its strengths. It’s fun. And fun, if you can afford Broadway prices, can be enough.
My Nose Ain’t Broken
Rocky, portrayed by Andy Karl with a credible Philly working-class accent, is an appealing Palooka, an aging boxer who works as an enforcer for a loan shark (a nearly unrecognizable Eric Anderson, star of Soul Doctor) to make ends meet, but is too sweet to break a deadbeat’s thumbs. Rocky is friends to animals, with a pair of pet turtles named Cuff and Link, and enamored of pet shop clerk Adrian, whom he’s known since fifth grade. (Margo Seibert, in her Broadway debut, makes Adrian feel real.) She is way too shy even to look at him as he awkwardly woos her with silly puns.
The irascible owner of the gym where Rocky works out, Mickey (Dakin Matthews, a persuasive stand-in for the films’ irreplaceable Burgess Meredith), views Rocky as a over-the-hill loser who wasted his talent, and should leave boxing and go into auto repair. But Rocky, a small-time club fighter whose biggest boast is that he’s never had his nose broken, doesn’t want to give up.
Songwriters Ahrens and Flaherty effectively translate Rocky’s Everyman personality in such songs as “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” which has a playful kind of Randy Newman vibe:
I got ten sore knuckles
And a ringing ear
I got a bruise over here and here and over here.
I got a swelled up eye and a real flat beer.
My nose ain’t broken.
The Italian Stallion
Rocky’s world is suddenly rocked by Apollo Creed (a solid Terence Archie), the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a character whose showmanship seems clearly inspired by Muhammad Ali. Apollo has arrived in Philadelphia to fight a contender on New Year’s Eve, 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. But the contender backs out (as we’re informed by a TV sports reporter whom we see live both on the stage and on a video projection), claiming to have broken his hand. Not willing to cancel the lucrative match, Apollo has an inspiration:
“We find a white local fighter and I’ll be all his,” Apollo sings in the song “Patriotic”
“If that ain’t American,what is?”
Apollo picks Rocky entirely because of the boxer nickname Rocky gave himself, the Italian Stallion.
Rocky — reluctant at first, ridiculed by the press and his new opponent — decides to go after his two dreams; going the distance in the championship fight….and becoming Adrian’s boyfriend. Does he get his dreams? The answer to that is as obvious as the many ballads along the way.
Realistic Fish, Fake Eggs, Rousing Ring
“Rocky” is distinguished by a design that includes, amid its industrial aesthetic (metal scaffolding on the move and banks of lights shining in our faces), meticulous attention to details.
There are realistic-looking fish in the pet store aquariums. When Rocky visits the industrial butcher where he’ll wind up training, 15 huge, convincing slabs of beef descend from the rafters. As part of his training routine, Andy Karl opens his refrigerator, breaks raw eggs in a glass, and drinks it before our eyes – to a round of audience applause. (The eggs are reportedly fake, thank God for Karl’s sake.)
Most impressive is what the designers do with the boxing ring. Those seated up front (including the winners of the $35-a-ticket lottery) are escorted to bleachers onstage, and told to take all their belongings. The reason soon becomes clear: The boxing ring slides into the center of the theater. The effect of this is electric; those with newly created ringside seats are especially rewarded. (“Rocky” is choreographed by Steven Hoggett, who also choreographed “Once, “and Kelly Devine, responsible for “Memphis” and “Jersey Boys.”)
All of this is what makes “Rocky” fun. The musical does not have the charm of the original “Rocky” movie, which, despite its obvious emotional manipulation, remains both irresistible and moving. It’s hard to feel as moved at the Winter Garden.
Sylvester Stallone on Broadway
Part of the appeal of Rocky the movie is its own underdog aura. It reportedly cost $1 million and was shot in just 28 days, yet grossed $226 million and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Rocky the musical, by contrast, comes with a $16.5 million price tag (less than one-quarter the cost of Spider-Man, I should point out), and the bloated baggage of following an endless number of Rocky sequels. I said earlier that the performances are fine and the expensive stagecraft doesn’t undermine the story. I believe this to be true. But the overall effect of the big Broadway treatment is to offer an entertaining experience, not an emotional one.
One must give credit where it is due, especially since Sylvester Stallone’s only previous association with Broadway, if you can call it that, was his having directed and co-written the single most ignorant and ludicrous movie I have ever seen about Broadway. “Staying Alive,” supposedly a sequel to the far superior “Saturday Night Fever,” tells the story of Tony Manero (John Travolta) after he escapes from Brooklyn and is now aspiring to make it on Broadway. Yet, decades later, Stallone really has made it on Broadway.
It is my guess that Rocky the musical will remain at the Winter Garden for fans to enjoy for some time to come – and my fervid hope that, whether on screen or on stage, there are no more Rocky sequels.
At the Winter Garden
Book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; based on the MGM/United Artists motion picture
Directed by Alex Timbers; choreography by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine; produced by Joop van den Ende and Bill Taylor; sets by Christopher Barreca; costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Peter Hylenski; video by Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina; special effects designed by Jeremy Chernick; wig and makeup design by Harold Mertens; orchestrations by Stephen Trask and Doug Besterman
Cast: Andy Karl (Rocky Balboa), Margo Seibert (Adrian), Terence Archie (Apollo Creed), Dakin Matthews (Mickey), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Paulie) and Jennifer Mudge (Gloria).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission.