By: David Sheward
Rocky was never one of my favorite movies. When it came out in 1976, I found Sylvester Stallone’s story of a hard-luck Philadelphia boxer given a shot at the heavyweight title predictable and trite (and I’m from Philly). I was furious it won the Best Picture Oscar over All the President’s Men, and I never bothered to see any of the endless sequels. So imagine my shock when the musical version of the film, now on Broadway after premiering in Hamburg, Germany, had me cheering for the titular underdog to go the distance and kayo the bombastic champ.
This metamorphosis from schmaltzy to spectacular is largely due to director Alex Timbers, whose theatrical imagination has ignited such innovative productions as Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Here Lies Love. Employing Christopher Barreca’s gritty sets, Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina’s grimy video projections, and Christopher Akerlind’s versatile lighting, Timbers creates a fast-paced, heart-pounding, grown-up fairy tale.
The real charge arrives during the last 20 minutes of the show, when audience members in the first 20 rows are swiftly ushered on stage and Barreca’s massive boxing ring flies into the middle of the cavernous Winter Garden for the climactic bout. Unfortunately, patrons on the side sections must stand to view the match, expertly choreographed with ballet-like precision by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine. A Jumbotron with multiple TV screens descends, and all of a sudden we’re in a real match with video images and color commentary from two sportscasters high above the stage.
The score, by Ragtime veterans Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, has just the right amount of vinegar to keep it from getting too sugary. Likewise, the trim book by Stallone and Thomas Meehan wisely downplays sentiment and gets the story in fighting shape. But, on the negative side, the co-authors have spiffed up the schlubby characters. The dumb but full-of-heart Rocky, his mousy girlfriend Adrian, her self-destructive brother Paulie, the craggy manager Mickey-all become well-adjusted, likable winners too quickly. Even Terence Archie’s narcissistic champ, Apollo Creed, comes across as a generous guy.
In the title role, Andy Karl is handsomer in a glamour-boy way than the rough-edged Stallone, making him slightly unconvincing as a washed-up club fighter, but Karl overcomes his good looks and endows Rocky with streetwise charm and intense determination to claw his way out of Palookaville. This is probably one of the most demanding roles on Broadway: The actor must sing, dance, run (along with a chorus of Spider-Man-like doubles), and go 15 rounds. Karl gets a vigorous workout and emerges triumphant.
As Adrian, Margo Seibert transforms to a confident beauty a bit too easily, but she possesses a powerful, evocative voice. Dakin Matthews is appropriately crusty as Mickey, and Danny Mastrogiorgio gives Paulie needed acid, even though the script doesn’t allow him to pour on enough to make the character sting.
While this Rocky is an improvement over the film, I would have preferred just a pinch more spice. But then that final boxing scene makes up for any quibbles.
Opened March 13 for an open run. Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $79-143. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Morris MacMatzen