The proposition of a musical version of the hit 1976 film, Rocky, penned by and starring Sylvester Stallone was dubious at best. With Thomas Meehan collaborating with Stallone on the book and the great Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in charge of the score, the idea started to sound hopeful. Then word came from a way out of town try-out in Germany that the show was a hit. Finally it has opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre and it remains to be seen whether or not it is a hit. As musical theatre literature, it is the lesser of the Ahrens and Flaherty shows—disappointing even. There are no soaring ballads and triumphant anthems of their past works. There aren’t even any fun rhythmic ditties found in shows with comic characters. What the score does do faithfully is sound like the characters’ voices and the blend from dialogue to singing is smooth. Yet, everything seems half baked.
The audience seems to react the most to the book, which contains moments so familiar to fans of the film, that the spoken exchanges get a reaction like a hit tune in a Rodgers and Hammerstein revival. The songs, by contrast, are received with tepid, polite applause and part of it is that the songs simply do not have any power. The orchestration gets good mileage out of the famous film score’s trumpet anthem and it was wise to include it, for it generates some well needed energy. However, inserting “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III, seems an unnecessary attempt to placate the lowest common denominator.
The most fun of the show is the scenery by Christopher Barreca. The show moves along swiftly under Alex Timbers’ direction, but Barreca’s set operates with functional ease and once in place, his period ‘70s details enrich the production greatly. The real stunner of the production comes almost at the end when the real audience of the first several rows is ushered out of their seats and up on stage to sit in bleachers as the boxing ring magically moves out over the orchestra seating area to morph the Winter Garden into an arena. The choreography of the fight (Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine) is fantastic and stylized as it is, inspires true anxiety and suspense. This sequence is a crowd pleaser immense enough to make one think they have seen a great show, nearly erasing all the blandness that came before it. But then, you only have to think back on the full experience to realize that trick scenery and an energetically choreographed number does not a Broadway classic make.
Andy Karl is really quite perfect as the title character in looks, voice and personality. Margo Seibert as Adrien has the best material and turns in the finest performance with nice songs that suit the bashful character who breaks out of her shell when she falls in love. Terence Arche is entertaining as Apollo Creed and sells his kitschy variety show number, “Patriotic,” with great bravado. Dakin Matthews is uninspired as Mickey, the trainer who helps Rocky get back in the ring. He has nothing of the character quirks and emotional depth of Burgess Meredith in the film and the role really needs someone distinctive.
Many will walk away from Rocky feeling that their money was well spent. The show is definitely entertaining and the last twenty minutes is phenomenal, but it’s just not of the quality we have come to expect from the talents who made it. The title may keep it running for quite a while and so, only time will tell if Rocky the stage musical is a hit. For now it is not. For more information and tickets go to www.rockybroadway.com.