When I review a show I evaluate all its various components to decide if, in my opinion, it is worthwhile for the general public to spend its hard earned dollars on the significant cost of purchasing a ticket. For a musical this could include the quality of the acting, how melodic or memorable the score is, the numerous design elements, the coherency of the book, and the forcefulness of the direction. For Rocky – The Musical, based on the 1976 Sylvester Stallone boxing epic, it’s a split decision. On the one hand, the extended “Training Montage” sequences and the slugfest finale, “The Fight,” are captivating and riveting spectacles, especially Rocky’s 15 round clash with Apollo Creed. On the other hand, when the testosterone levels are ratcheted down, the production limps along like a fighter who has seen better days.
As with the film, the story centers on Rocky Balboa (Andy Karl), a seemingly washed up boxer who takes bouts with third-rate sluggers while working as an enforcer for a two-bit gangster. He pines for Adrian (Margo Seibert), the shy, introverted sister of his best friend Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio). While Rocky trudges about the City of Brotherly Love, training in a rundown gym, and feeding his pet turtle the world-boxing champion, Apollo Creed (Terence Archie), swoops into town to gear up for a championship fight. When his opponent gets hurt while training the larger-than-life pugilist comes up with the showy idea of giving a local boxer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go blow-to-blow with the champ. Of course, Rocky is the chosen one. He trains; he downs raw eggs; he trains; he snags his girl, who suddenly blossoms into a self-assured woman; he trains some more, now with the help of Mickey (Dakin Matthews), an aged, veteran fight trainer, and then the long awaited big bout takes place with all the pomp and circumstance a Broadway show can muster.
When Rocky hit movie theaters in 1976 it was the year of the Bicentennial. America was throwing itself the largest party in history and feeling a patriotic fervor and can do attitude extraordinaire. This resonated with moviegoers and Rocky Balboa, the perpetual loser who embraced the American Dream, was adopted by the public and became a winner. The musical of Rocky attempts to replicate this zeal and vibrancy, but only succeeds halfway. It’s not for a lack of trying. The iconic movie scenes are replicated in the show—using a side of beef hanging in a meatpacking locker as a punching bag and the slow trot up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As I mentioned before, the training sequences leading up to the big bout, to the strains of “Eye of the Tiger,” are exhilarating and visually thrilling. For the title match the creative team and director, Alex Timbers, pull out all the stops. Audience members in the first few rows of the center orchestra are ushered onstage to watch on bleachers while the entire boxing ring moves out over their now vacated seats. A large arena-sized scoreboard descends from the ceiling as two television announcers, perched above the stage, provide high-flying analysis. If the remaining portions of Rocky could somehow generate the same type of energy as these two scenes then the show would be the must-see musical.
Unfortunately, the high-octane story comes to a grinding and sentimental halt when it deals with relationships, primarily Rocky’s wooing of Adrian. It’s nice. It’s tender and it rounds out the story, but it’s rather pedestrian and unexceptional. The book, by multi-Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone, has it moments, but they are too few and far between. If the score was noteworthy the semi-plodding plot wouldn’t be so noticeable, but the songs written by the team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is probably the most unremarkable output they have penned during their long and illustrious career. The twosome behind Ragtime, Once on This Island, Lucky Stiff, and My Favorite Year, among others, have put together a score that is bland and uninteresting, which is too bad since I was really looking forward to their return to writing for a major Broadway musical.
The cast, led by Andy Karl as Rocky, is uniformly first-rate. Karl has all the Rocky-isms down with the lumbering gait and Philadelphia drawl. The brawny actor shows off his athleticism throughout the production. He also has a fine voice. Margo Seibert as Adrian, at first, is convincingly meek, scared of her own shadow, but then becomes more assured once she hooks up with her new beau. Terence Archie, chiseled, oozing self-confidence, with an ego the size of his biceps, might come across solely as a puffed out braggart, but when he realizes he is in the fight of his life his tone and temperament turn decidedly serious and full of purpose. Danny Mastrogiorgio is more annoying then necessary as Paulie and Dain Matthews as Mickey is suitably grizzled as the wily old-timer.
Christopher Barreca’s Scenic Design and Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina’s Video Design are some of the highlights of the production. They are large, muscular and add depth and dimension. Incorporating hand held video cameras, with their output thrust onto strategically placed screens, add an immediacy throughout the show.
Alex Timbers, when given the leeway, delivers knockout direction. What’s so frustrating is the almost Jekyll and Hyde nature of the musical—the over-the-top and the, well, under-the-top. There’s not much, for example, you can do within a pet store, Adrian’s place of employment or close-quartered apartment scenes.
Rocky – The Musical, with a discounted ticket, worth entering the ring.