Gypsy. Annie. Rocky? Not exactly – but don’t discount the underdog entirely. Though it’s unlikely to enter the pantheon of Great American Musicals, the new musical version of Rocky that opened this week at the Winter Garden Theatre is a formidable entertainment. The 1976 film of the same name, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote the book of the musical with Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan), doesn’t exactly cry out for musicalization (“All singing! All dancing! All boxing?!”). Somehow, though, the show’s creators manage to bypass most of the clichés we expect and get to the heart of Rocky’s story, choosing to focus much of their attention on his love story with mousy pet store employee Adrian, an unlikely ingénue whose initial reticence about our hero’s tough exterior cracks after he lets fly a barrage of cheesy jokes in order to woo her.
In the first act, Rocky, a down-and-out Philadelphia boxer and thug-for-hire, woos Adrian with the help of her brother Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a good-for-nothing worker in a meat plant who initially helps his friend get the girl but changes his mind once Adrian starts spending most of her time away from home. By the end of the first act, Rocky’s been chosen to fight the nation’s heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, in a title bout that’s set to put him on the map.
Composer-lyricist team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Once On This Island) have crafted a solid (if occasionally lackluster) pop-rock score that mostly fits the mood of the piece, with soaring ballads in all the right places (“Fight From the Heart,” “Keep on Standin’”) and a number of energetic chorus numbers (“Ain’t Down Yet,” “Patriotic,” “Southside Celebrity”). Of course, the iconic Rocky theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” and “Eye of the Tiger” (from Rocky III) feature as well and are crowd favorites. Amped-up orchestrations by Doug Besterman and Stephen Trask help the melodies fill the Winter Garden’s sizable house.
Stallone’s iconic shoes are of course difficult to fill, but Broadway veteran Andy Karl succeeds with aplomb. His acting is stronger than his still-formidable vocals; nevertheless, an audience easily roots for him, and he fits the part physically. As Adrian, Margo Seibert is a real find, managing to exude mousy relatability on stage, no small task for a stage actress in a massive musical production. Apollo Creed, our antagonist, is played with energy and swagger by Terence Archie, who makes us love to hate Apollo like we should (but whom the musical’s authors could have made a more formidably threatening character).
Sort of like throwing a boxer into the cast of Dancing with the Stars, Rocky’s writers faced a distinct challenge in turning a macho central character into a singing character on stage, and they’ve succeed only in part. Though his diction is on point in numbers like “My Nose Ain’t Broken” (sample lyric: “I got ten sore knuckles and a ringin’ ear. / I got a bruise over here and here and…over here”), in other places, especially when he duets with Adrian, he seems, frankly, too soft (“You do the spins./I’ll do the walkin’./And if you get shy, I don’t mind talkin’.”). The transition between these two sides of Rocky is, unfortunately, uneasy at best.
Despite its flaws, however, fluid direction by Alex Timbers keeps the production moving at a steady clip. Though the material here is more workmanlike than effortless, Timbers’s expertise elevates an otherwise middleweight show to the status of a heavyweight contender, aided by the work of lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and fluid, detailed sets by Christopher Barreca. The show’s video design, though occasionally anachronistic considering the 1970s period, represents some of the finest examples of projection design in the theatre today, especially as close-up images of Rocky’s training regimen seamlessly complement the cast of actors on stage.
The scale of the production is of the massive kind we’ve come to expect of Broadway spectacles the likes of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Fortunately, there’s a more solid emotional core here, but there are a handful of moments that hearken back to Spidey’s reign, especially during the show’s two crowd-pleasing second act training montages, in which a team of gray-hoodied Rockys run, jump-rope, and stair-climb their way about the stage in a deftly choreographed parade. It’s all a bit much, but in the end this is the kind of show that appeals to the whisky-swilling Rock of Ages crowds who will enter ready to catcall as Rocky pounds his glass of raw eggs and reaches the top of the art museum steps.
For the show’s final twenty minutes, audience members in the “Golden Circle” (the first eight rows of the orchestra) are led onto bleachers on stage, where they watch the final match from up close. A rotating boxing ring glides out over the front orchestra seats, allowing Rocky and Apollo to face off in close proximity to a majority of audience members. Intricate choreography by Kelly Devine and Steven Hoggett stages the match with realistic detail (the dancing throughout most of the rest of the show is mostly unmemorable otherwise).
Despite a final emotional moment between Rocky and Adrian that leaves us wanting more in the way of character development, Rocky manages to avoid many of the property’s possible pitfalls as a slick evening of entertainment. If it lacks oomph here and there, or a couple of the songs miss, audiences are unlikely to fault the talents assembled here. After all, the show’s tagline is “Love wins,” and we’re all so eager to root for the hero that the flash, lights, noise, and glimmer of heart on display here provide a handily-won K.O. in spite of tough odds.