BWW Reviews: ROCKY's Unusual Love Story Sings Beautifully
Even if Rocky didn't start as an Academy Award winning Best Picture and the anchor of a major movie franchise, the pedigree of creative talent behind the new musical that opened at the Winter Garden tonight is enough to excite any devoted fan of musical theatre.
With such exceptional work behind them as the scores of Ragtime and Once On This Island, Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) rank high among Broadway's current best in providing songs that enhance a story's drama and define specific characters. Sylvester Stallone could not ask for a better collaborator to transfer his original screenplay to the musical stage than Thomas Meehan, author and co-author of such superbly-crafted books as Annie, The Producers and Hairspray.
Alex Timbers is one of the hottest young directors in town, with productions like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love displaying a firm grasp of what makes musical theatre work while exploring new dimensions of hipness. And though devotees of the 1976 film may heavily scrutinize the performance of any actor who dares to slip into original star Stallone's trunks, Andy Karl has been regularly grabbing Broadway's attention with charismatic turns in supporting parts and seems well-prepared to tackle his first starring role on the big stage.
Those of a cynical nature may say that with its legendary pop culture name-recognition, Rocky on Broadway need only be decently written and mounted with a lot of flash in order to be a commercial hit. Instead, Rocky is a very good musical drama of the Golden Age style; an intimate love story about a man who would have lived and died a life of anonymity if a quirk of fate hadn't suddenly thrust the world's attention on him. Filled with honest sentiment and warmth, Rocky is an unusual romance for the musical stage, but one that sings beautifully.
An injury to the number one heavyweight contender only three weeks before World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed's New Year's Day title defense in Philadelphia threatens to cancel the hyped up event and when no qualified boxer will fill in on such short notice. So Creed (played with funked-up 70s swagger by Terence Archie) comes up with the idea of giving an unknown local fighter a shot at the title, figuring he can toy with him for a couple of rounds before knocking him out in the third.
"America is the land of opportunity, where every underdog gets a shot, right?"
That unknown, Rocky Balboa, is chosen not for his pugilistic skills, but for his potential to make a good news story. ("Look, it's the name, man. "The Eye-talian Stallion." The media'll eat it up.")
But for the first half of the musical, that's only the subplot, as Act I focuses on the budding romance between Rocky, a lonely guy getting too old to continue in the sport he loves (He also goons for a loan shark but is too nice to hurt anybody.) and Adrian, the shy pet store clerk he's had a crush on since they were in grade school together.
Karl turns in an excellent acting job, playing the not especially bright boxer with tender pathos and sweet, working class sensitivity. Especially impressive is how he finds a vocal tone that doesn't sound awkward when he blends from speaking to full-on singing.
Margo Seibert is just as good as Adrian, who slowly emerges from her painful fear of men, the result of living with her emotionally abusive brother, Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Hearts are sure to melt when she finally agrees to join Rocky on an ice-skating date and feels comfort while freely gliding. Her late-in-the-game exertion of independence from Paulie is as solid a knockout punch as anything else the evening has to offer.
Ahrens and Flaherty's score peaks early with "My Nose Ain't Broken," a humorous inventory of the wear and tear Rocky's career has had on his body, and "Raining," where Adrian's fears battle her fascination with the nice guy who's always kind to her. There's some good character work with Creed's pop soul anthem, "Patriotic," and "In The Ring," where Rocky's crusty manager Mickey (Dakin Matthews) nostalgically recalls his life in the fight game.
The pair stumbles a bit with the generic-sounding company numbers that mostly serve as background commentary to the action. There are obligatory insertions of the familiar fanfare of "Gonna Fly Now" and "Eye Of The Tiger" serves as the theme for a training montage, but the two movie songs are the sore thumbs of the score.
Christopher Barreco's elaborate set takes us on a gritty tour of Philadelphia, but Timbers never allows the simple love story to be overwhelmed. The media frenzy building up to the bout is represented by reports on giant news screens and by the time the bell for the first round has rung, patrons in the front rows have been reseated in bleachers on the Winter Garden stage so their theatre chairs can be covered by a full-size boxing ring. A Jumbotron emerges from above, ensuring everyone gets a close-up view of the fight, spectacularly choreographed by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine.
If it sounds like overkill, the technological glitz is fully earned and fits perfectly into the storytelling. Rocky is a big show, but nothing about it is bigger than its heart.