*NOTE: These are just a few thoughts from a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic.
ROCKY – THE MUSICAL
After watching ROCKY-THE MUSICAL, I felt like I truly went 15 rounds with Apollo Creed. I was exhausted, tense, and a bit overwhelmed. Mostly in very good ways. Mostly.
But, I cannot express enough, that where this musical made unbelievable strides as a theatrical spectacle and as an offering of a beloved brand that millions love (Rocky is undoubtable the true underdog story of the ages) I cannot help but wonder if it would be less of a spectacle and more of an impactful wonder if it had been reworked for the stage as a simple play.
The story (as if you don’t know. If you haven’t seen the movie, shame on you. It’s a cinematic masterpiece as the making of the film was an underdog story in itself) finds Rocky Balboa, a beat-up, boxer with a heart of gold. We get a quick shot of who his is with the charming and fun “My Nose Ain’t Broken” in the close confines of his seedy apartment (complete with Cuff and Link his two turtles…who got their own bronx-cheer when introduced. Fun!)
He’s in love with pet store worker Adrienne who is Pauly’s (Rocky’s friend) sister. We find that she’s got a lot in common with her admirer (and Margo Seibert is wonderful as the shy Adrienne) but her ballad “Raining” is very heavy-handed for an exposition song. We don’t know her quite yet…and we have yet to see the quirky charm that is our hero’s love…before hearing a draggy lament about her strife. I don’t know…maybe I’m being too harsh…but I thought “okay, I get it” at least twice during the song.
Rocky is facing hard times, boxing for pennies, barely making ends meat and even acting as a part-time “ruffian,” collecting debts in a shady side-job. (Of course, he’s too good of a guy to actually break thumbs or rough people up.) What is brilliant about this iconic character is how Andy Karl brings him to life without giving us a Stallone impersonation. Many actors turn in stellar performances…but Karl is simply a genius as the down-and-out boxer. Simple gesturing and unbelievably grounded attention to details throughout are engaging. You find yourself laughing when he laughs, breathing heavier when he runs, and you almost feels the blows he takes in every match. Rarely do I see such touching portrayals…and the fact that he didn’t get the Tony for the role is a crime. (If you struck ALL of the razzamatazz and the technical amusement park that is the set….more on that later….and left Andy Karl onstage all by himself….I would still pay full price.)
Back to the story. Close-up on Apollo Creed, the story’s immediate antagonist and the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He’s a flashy and rich mover and shaker, who is just as much a promoter as he is an athlete. He doesn’t have a championship match for New Year’s Day because his opponent breaks his wrist in training. So, insert the Italian Stallion, who is perceived by Creed as the perfect “American Dream” promotion opportunity. Think of the publicity! Terence Archie (who plays Creed) is a stoic, chiseled bad guy. He’s as poised and scripted as a WWE wrestler and is so much fun to watch. His number “Patriotic” is fun. Too bad that this is truly his only musical vehicle in the show.
While Creed thinks about the theatrics of the boxing match….Rocky is busy trying to woo Adrianne, make “good” decisions, and train for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Of course we have grizzly Mickey, the curmudgeon boxing gym owner who winds up training Rocky…but this character never really gets a fair shot. TV and movie character actor, Dakin Matthews is SO GOOD in everything he does…but in this, I thought, “eh.” (And frankly….I a little upset that I didn’t hear my favorite Mikey line “you’re gonna eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder!”) And his lone musical moment “In the Ring” is disinteresting and long.
Now lets talk about the technical wonder that is ROCKY. The Winter Garden Theatre has been turned into a playground of discovery, and at EVERY single turn of this show, we are wowed with giant, towering set pieces that fly-in, fly-out, transform before our eyes, and offer giant visuals that will remain with you for a long time. The boxing ring itself is flown in and out, tipped sideways and serves as a movie screen and provides breath-taking, symbolic subtext opportunities. The meat locker where Pauly works consists of rows of GIANT slabs of beef in a cooler that drop from the ceiling on giant meat hooks. So cool! It created an audible gasp from the audience.
The lighting design is unreal, and the projections are taken to an interactive level that is pure genius, and makes the iconic movie moments such as Rocky’s training montages or the Philadelphia Museum of Art moment come to life. Details like rain projected on the entire set, carefully digitally generated so as to look like it’s actually hitting the set pieces are WONDERFUL!
The second act is the real treat however. We eagerly anticipate the big fight…and when it comes time to deliver, the whole room transforms into a giant boxing arena. Ceiling monitors drop and the first 15 rows of the orchestra are redirected to the stage to sit in bleachers behind the ring which rumbles forward and covers the seating area to create a true “theatre in the round” ring-side experience. How they executed the change-over, complete with actors’ entrances, video commentary, and audience participation was something I enjoyed watching as it was choreographed as strategically as the fight scenes. Add some brilliant lighting nuances, and I tell you…I felt like I was at a boxing match. It was unreal.
Of course, the play, our hero and the audience “go the distance” and we all cheer in wild excitement as Rocky screams “ADRIANNE!” at the end of the fight.
You see…the show has the right formula and a willing and able (and I might even say EAGER) audience in waiting. They cast the right people…the spectacle is superb….it’s just the music. (And I hate to say it, because with music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, one might figure “how can you go wrong.”) I think the problem is the same problem I had with Spider-Man….it’s too ballad-y with not enough songs you can tap your toes to.
But, my question is this…should ROCKY be a musical you tap your toes to? I argue that without canceling out ANY of the special effects, technical hoopla and stellar performances, you could make this a theatrical PLAY that would garnish the same type of hype, in my opinion. (I still think WAR HORSE is one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever seen and they had musical elements…but I would argue it would suck as a musical.)
I hate to say it…because I love sparkly things….but perhaps the technical elements aren’t needed.
I liked this musical…a lot….but…..what if this story were told….as a beat-up, worn-down, underdog of a story…with underdog set elements…perhaps holding a mirror up to Balboa’s world?
Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling with this one….it’s a BRILLIANT “Rocky” story with a brilliant “Rocky” leading man….but it’s an APOLLO CREED-type of a musical.
Too gussied up.