Turning successful motion pictures into Broadway musicals has become the norm in recent years. Whether the iconic 1976 Sylvester Stallone film, Rocky, was a movie that cried out for a musical adaptation is open to question. But, Rocky has arrived on Broadway and, somewhat like its title character, the musical has a bit of a bumpy road but is triumphant in the end. Rocky, of course, tells the story of the small time, well meaning Philadelphia boxer, Rocky Balboa, his romance with meek girl friend Adrian, and his improbable chance to fight for the heavyweight championship.
Some top Broadway professionals have brought Rocky to the stage. The book is written by Stallone along with Thomas Meehan, the three time Tony Award winner, who wrote Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray, and many more Broadway musicals. The score comes from lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, who provided the soaring songs for Ragtime, among other shows. Alex Timbers, who has done some highly praised and creative work on Peter and the Starcatcher and Here Lies Love to name two recent shows, is the director. Nevertheless, Rocky starts off a little flat at times; the first act is not bad and always watchable, but needs a spark. It works best when the love story between Rocky and Adrian starts to unfold, which is charming, bringing some heart to the show. Act Two is considerably better, with Timbers providing some inspired training sequences that recreate on stage some of the film’s most famous moments.
The payoff comes with the fight scene and the buildup to it, which takes up the last twenty minutes of the musical. The scene is terrific and marvelously theatrical and is on its own worth the price of admission. The audience members sitting in the first eight rows of the center orchestra section are brought onstage as a boxing ring extends into the theater over those seats and a video screen descends from the ceiling. It is unlike anything you’ve seen in a theater, as the Winter Garden is turned into the Philadelphia Spectrum. The fight scene itself has been beautifully staged by Timbers with great help from choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine, and it brings Rocky to a pretty thrilling and satisfying conclusion.
It also helps that the two lead performers are highly winning. Andy Karl is outstanding as Rocky, stepping into a role so long associated with Stallone. Karl’s mannerisms, vocal inflections, and personality are consistent with what you expect from Rocky, but he makes the role his own and does so with great charm and likability. Margo Seibert sings gorgeously as Adrian while capturing her shyness and awkwardness.
The Stallone-Meehan book is faithful to the movie but nevertheless a little lacking in drama and excitement. It does include favorite moments from the film, and all the major characters, including Apollo Creed, Mickey, and Paulie, are, of course, in the musical. Given the talent and pedigree that Ahrens and Flaherty have displayed in past shows, their score is disappointing. Some of the songs for Rocky and Adrian may prove more attractive after hearing them again. In fairness, the songs were appropriate for the characters singing them – none of the Rocky characters were going to be singing a song like “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime. And, the score had to be consistent in sound and style with the era and with the well known music from the movie that has been integrated into the musical, and the writers did accomplish that. So, it is left to director Timbers to infuse Rocky with a heightened theatricality, and he has succeeded brilliantly. His physical production is impressive, with lots of large moving set pieces, and the training sequences and fight scene are cinematic, imaginative, and exceptional.
Rocky is by no means a perfect or great musical; the show’s flaws are fairly easy to see. The path to the closing scene is an uneven one. But, by evening’s end, all is pretty much forgiven; the fight scene lives up to and may even exceed its hype and is a genuine crowd pleaser, allowing the audience to leave on a fulfilling and rewarding high. - Jim Miller
Winter Garden Theatre is at 1635 Broadway in Manhattan.
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.