Review Roundup: ROCKY Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!

By: Mar. 13, 2014
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The new musical Rocky, starring Andy Karl and Margo Seibert, opens tonight, March 13, at Broadway's historic Winter Garden Theatre.

ROCKY features an original score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the celebrated Tony Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated songwriters behind Ragtime, Once on This Island, and Anastasia, and a book by multiple Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Hairspray, Annie) and Sylvester Stallone, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 1976 Oscar-winning Best Picture, Rocky. The production is directed by Alex Timbers with choreography by Steven Hoggett.

ROCKY brings to life the iconic and inspiring story of struggling small time Philly boxer, Rocky Balboa, who gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to go the distance against heavyweight champ Apollo Creed. Both an adrenaline-infused spectacle and a surprising story of blossoming romance between two lonely outsiders, Rocky is a heart-stopping and viscerally theatrical new musical for everyone brave enough to follow their dream.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: The creators of "Rocky" the musical - which features a book by Thomas Meehan and Mr. Stallone, and songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, with Alex Timbers as the director - have perhaps gone overboard in capitalizing on this legend. For what they have given us is a show that at first feels like such a flat liner that you can't imagine that it could pull itself into any kind of competitive shape, even in a lackluster season for Broadway musicals. The doubts that plague and paralyze its title character (the appealing, deliberately underwhelming Andy Karl) seem to have informed the show as well. The governing sensibility isn't just underdog; it's hangdog...Every tool at the disposal of the creative team (and probably much of the show's budget) is brought into play now for an all-out, multimedia assault on the senses that forces much of the audience to its feet. And I won't say more, because why should I spoil the one real pleasure this show provides? The fight, for the record, lasts 16 minutes. With front orchestra tickets costing $143 (and you'll want to sit close), that comes to about $9 per heart-racing minute. Such is the price of excitement on Broadway these days. Hey, it's healthier than steroids.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: The puzzling show "Rocky" opened Thursday at the Winter Garden Theatre, both lovingly faithful to the 1976 film written by and starring Sylvester Stallone and one that seems to forget it's supposed to be a musical midway through Act II...The final fight - a spectacular piece of theater, to be sure - is so lifelike that it becomes surreal. We're watching a simulated fight lifted from a fictional movie but played inside an ornate Broadway theater. Which begs the question why this material screamed out to be a musical in the first place. The gritty, bloody world of 1970s boxing is not a natural fit for bursting into song - as some very awkward early moments in a gym here will attest. The creators seem to have acknowledged this tension and just abandoned the whole musical part. So the show ends with no rousing closing number, no speeches or dialogue, just a post-bout buzz.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: "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 Barrecawork 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...The ace up the show's sleeve, however, is...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...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.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Whatever your expectations going into "Rocky," you come out rocking the technology. No mystery about where the $16.5 million capital investment went in this musical iteration of the 1976 movie that made an iconic hero of Rocky Balboa. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens no doubt took their pittance for scoring the book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone. But the real coin for helmer Alex Timbers' extravagant production went into the spectacular projections, sound and lighting effects, and into the scenic showpiece - a regulation-size boxing ring that puts the audience ringside for the big fight. Looks like it was worth every penny.

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: The stage version, directed with immense panache and soaring physicality by Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"), is very nearly as good [as the movie], an unpretentious slice of honest entertainment whose rock-'em-sock-'em finale will set the snobbiest of theatergoers to cheering in spite of themselves...Mr. Timbers's staging and Christopher Barreca's scenic design are the stuff Tony nominations are made of. The neon-and-graffiti mean streets of South Philly are portrayed with grim verisimilitude, but the glitz starts to fly as the climactic fight scene draws nearer, and the fight itself is a total-immersion, spare-no-expense stage spectacle. Since Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine are jointly credited with the show's choreography, I assume that they deserve much credit for the potency of this scene, which is a rich and masterly synthesis of movement, music and design. So yes, "Rocky" is a straight-down-the-center commodity musical-but a damned fine one, maybe the best I've ever seen. A knockdown hit, in fact.

Linda Winer, Newsday: For a show that ends with the most impressive 20-minute boxing match ever seen in a Broadway musical, "Rocky" lacks conflict. Everyone is basically nice, even the gangsters, especially Andy Karl in a career-breakthrough performance as Rocky Balboa. And Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champ who plucks Rocky from loser-ville to manipulate an easy killing in the ring, isn't such a bad guy, either. Oh, there is plenty of punch in the finale of Sylvester Stallone's adaptation of his iconic triumph-of-the-little-guy 1976 movie, which spawned five sequels. But we wouldn't call that this earnest show, co-written by Stallone and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan and directed with more conscientiousness than flair by Alex Timbers, one of the theater's most inventive forces...But there is a sweet center here: Karl, who imbues the Cinderella-guy story with enormous reserves of macho sensitivity and the big heart that denizens of the South Philly gym keep describing.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: If you want to witness the Cinderella story that put Sylvester Stallone on the map elevated to new levels of bombast in a live production, then Rocky, which opened Thursday, will leave you similarly energized. But this musical adaptation of the original 1976 film is actually at its most affecting when things quiet down a little - that is, when co-librettists Thomas Meehan and Stallone, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens turn their attention to Rocky's less flamboyant, more awkward efforts as a man looking for love.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: In the case of "Rocky," let's begin at the end. The electric final 15 minutes of the new musical based on Sylvester Stallone's small-town Philly boxer, now open at the Winter Garden Theatre, are likely to inspire a heavy outpouring of adjectives: Game-changing. Jaw-dropping. Astounding. All are fair. Preceding the high-voltage conclusion-a round-by-round battle between the idealistic Italian Stallion and world champ Apollo Creed that makes use of the theater space in a quite novel way -is an otherwise-workaday musical buoyed by enough built-in goodwill to lift it up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and beyond.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: Something electric happens at the end of "Rocky" that gets theatergoers on their feet and writers scuttling for exclamation points: A boxing ring descends from the rafters, then glides into the orchestra! There's hooks, punches and blood - and a Jumbotron! And then: "Adriaaaaaaaan!" Director Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") earns his keep right there. If you could win a Tony based on just 20 minutes, "Rocky" would be a shoo-in. Problem is, that finale is preceded by an hour and a half of less thrilling moments...As the Italian Stallion, Karl follows the Stallone model - a big galoot with a heart of gold - but he makes it his own. He has a cool-cat ease and a warm, evocative singing voice. We believe in this irrepressible Rocky and his glass-half-full philosophy...He's well matched with Archie's cocky Apollo and Margo Seibert's Adrian, even though she isn't as pathetically lonely as the movie's semi-recluse.

Matt Windman, AM New York: The flow is also disrupted by all the new ballads, which attempt to psychologically probe Rocky and his girlfriend Adrian but end up being poorly integrated, musically weak and unintentionally ridiculous. Rocky, being an inarticulate individual, was not meant to burst into song. Hokey one-liners are also loaded into the script...While Andy Karl deserves credit for enduring so much physically as Rocky, he comes off as too clean cut to be credible in the role. As Adrian, Margo Seibert is stymied by her character being so undeveloped and makes little impression. In effect, "Rocky" is the new "Spider-Man," a similarly flashy and misconceived spectacle-musical that exists mainly to showcase an elaborate fight sequence as its finale.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: Despite the high-tech stagecraft, director Alex Timbers remains faithful to the indie spirit of the 1976 Oscar winner that made a star of Sylvester Stallone...At times the show plays less like a splashy Broadway musical than a Clifford Odets revival...The real trouble is that, unlike ''Eye of the Tiger'' or the snatches of Bill Conti's triumphal theme, Stephen Flaherty's bland new songs merely shadowbox at melody and never land the pop-rock punch they often seem to be seeking...Even so, Rocky delivers edge-of-your-seat thrills - particularly in the final 15 minutes - that underscore the fact that fans of boxing and live theater share some DNA: They love to see their stars battered, bloodied, but still standing. B

Jesse Green, Vulture: Take the score, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who (as Ragtimedemonstrated) know their way around iconic Americana. They work very carefully here, slowly developing a general musical atmosphere with shards of sung dialogue before allowing the emergence of a straight-up song. But, boy, do you feel the work. Ahrens, scrambling for hooks that won't sound musical theaterish and twee, has actually found some, but they come at the cost of a certain outlandishness, like Rocky's introductory solo "My Nose Ain't Broken." Similarly, Flaherty has identified a reasonable sound for the gritty story: guitar-heavy, with throbbing-headache bass, and bright chrome-on-a-used-car flugelhorning as suggested by Bill Conti's original movie scores...But within that compelling sound Flaherty mostly fails to make compelling songs...But because garage-band writing, however apt for the material, doesn't develop but rather repeats in torpid cells, the songs don't lift: they barely even move. Instead, the set does.

Peter Marks, The Washington Post: With the electrifying climax they've come up with for the new musical version of "Rocky," director Alex Timbers and his creative team reveal themselves to be true lords of the ring. It gives away nothing to describe the effect, because being in the Winter Garden the only way to appreciate completely its athletic panache and technical artistry...Although the performances by Karl and Margo Seibert, as his wallflower of girlfriend, Adrian, offer authentic moments of tenderness, they are let down by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens's surprisingly tin-eared score, and the frequently movie-parroting book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone.

Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune: Broadway's mostly doomed attempts at capturing the boundless American enthusiasm for professional sports, and the billions of associated dollars, have been handicapped by one crucial, constant failing -- an inability to really depict the playing of the actual game. "Rocky," the massive theatrical spectacle that opened Thursday night at the Winter Garden Theatre, certainly is a broadly realized story told with bold punches and too much nonperiod video, and it has a reflective, low-key score that reaches too often for songs of nervousness, or of past regret, when it should also convey the red blood that courses through a fighter's veins. But there will be no question in theatergoers' minds as they leave the theater that they have experienced the thrill of a fight.

Brendan Lemon, Financial Times: This new musical version of Rocky premiered last year in Germany, an appropriate choice: the 1976 movie and its five sequels are their own kind of Ring cycle. And that is, in fact, the key word here, as the main reason to see this spectacle is the stately Act Two emergence, from the proscenium into the audience, of a boxing ring. What precedes that coup is, in Broadway terms, an unexpectedly intimate affair -- a well-acted, occasionally dull and sometimes touching story of two wounded souls: Rocky Balboa, a piddling club fighter, and Adrian, a bespectacled clerk at a pet becomes apparent that the musical Rocky subscribes to the method of Mamma Mia!...for ensuring a hit: wallop the audience for the final 15 minutes. The fight, which includes movement by choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine, draws in the audience. By then, Andy Karl's painstaking performance as Rocky disappears among the cheers.

Rex Reed, The Huffington Post: Rocky is a smash hit that shows no sign of slowing down...The rich and serviceable score is by the Tony winning songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime). [Andy Karl is] the biggest thing since Hugh Jackman, and as Rocky Balboa...he is very much the center of Rocky. He sings with power and persuasion--and surprisingly in tune. He dances in and out of the ring with complex precision. He looks like a movie star. He's virile, he's in command of the stage, he's a one-man hormone explosion. He has charisma, a camera-ready physique from the cover of Today's Health, and the kind of body language that leaves the audience transfixed from beginning to end. If Rocky ever ends, watch out for more big things from this guy. He is merely sensational.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: It's never a good sign in a stage musical when the most rousing numbers are not written by the credited songwriters, in this case Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens for their Broadway version of "Rocky," which opened Thursday at the Winter Garden...Stallone and Meehan are faithful to that script, and on stage the dialogue plays even weaker than on screen. The corny jokes and meet-cute lines don't land or define character; they just sit there surrounded by dead air. Flaherty and Ahrens have merely punctuated that lame dialogue with their songs - or other people's songs...The show's Rocky is a bright spot in the production. Andy Karl has been in and out of a lot of Broadway shows, often as a replacement. Unlike Stallone's performance, there's nothing sentimental about Karl's Rocky, except the dialogue he's been stuck with. He's tough, resilient and displays a real macho edge, which isn't always the easiest task for a boxer singing on stage in a big Broadway musical.

Chuck Darron, Philadelphia Daily News: Taking on such an iconic and deeply-ingrained character is a courageous, if somewhat dangerous, move. Stallone's characterization is so rooted in our collective consciousness that it would be easy for Karl to hang Rocky's beat-up fedora on mere impersonation. But the Broadway vet ("Legally Blonde," "Jersey Boys") manages the near-impossible: He pays homage to Stallone's prototype but makes the character his own. He's not Stallone, but he is Rocky. That means he should start working on his acceptance speech for his inevitable Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award.

David Patrick Stern, Philadelphia Inquirer: That exclamation is heard so constantly in Rocky (the musical) - more than during an average five minutes spent in South Philly - that the lavish Broadway show seemingly reassures us that being at the high-tone Winter Garden Theatre doesn't mean we'll miss the gritty, blue-collar atmosphere that launched this saga of the underdog boxing champ. Not necessary. Any doubts about how well the story translates into a musical are dispelled in the opening minutes. The mob mentality of sporting events - as well as cohesive neighborhoods such as the one depicted here - is made for Broadway choruses. The story's tale of blind determination translates into power ballads.

Roma Torre, NY1: But whoa Andy Karl! Channeling Stallone's star-making performance, he is a marvel. As a triple threat actor, singer and boxer, no one works harder on Broadway. Pound for pound, he ranks number 1. Theatre purists may balk at the flaws, but give the fans a guy to cheer for and a thrilling fight to the finish, and "Rocky" is sure to emerge victorious.

Robert Feldberg, With persuasive stage realism, the men take turns pounding one another bloody. But there's little sense of the actual drama of a long, close boxing match, with its ebb and flow, strategy and tactics and the fighters' desperate will to win.Though losing a split decision, Rocky achieves his goal of going the distance. It's a triumph that, theatrically speaking, is pretty hollow.

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News: It makes sense to maintain what worked on film, but unlike the Broadway adaptation of "Once," the musical version doesn't ultimately transcend the movie. The score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), the Tony-winning "Ragtime" team, doesn't help that much. Songs are efficient, not memorable, as they channel contemporary pop, feelings-on-sleeve ballads and soulful and bouncy R&B. New numbers are complemented by the iconic "Eye of the Tiger," which loses something moving from film to stage.

David Cote, TimeOut NY: 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 inThe 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.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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