Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 13, 2014
Rocky Book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the MGM/United Artists Motion Picture. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreography by Steven Hoggett & Kelly Devine. Scenic design by Christopher Barreca. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Video design by Dan Scully, Pablo N. Molina. Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick. Wig & make-up design by Harold Martens. Orchestrations by Stephen Trask, Doug Besterman. Cast: Andy Karl, Margo Seibert, Terence Archie, and Dakin Matthews, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Jennifer Mudge, Eric Anderson, Adrian Aguilar, Michelle Aravena, James Brown III, Sam J. Cahn, Vincent Corazza, Kevin Del Aguila, Ned Eisenberg, Bradley Gibson, Stacey Todd Holt, Sasha Hutchings, David Andrew Macdonald, Vasthy Mompoint, Vince Oddo, Okieriete Onaodowan, Adam Perry, Kristin Piro, Luis Salgado, John Schiappa, Samantha Shafer, Wallace Smith, Jenny Lee Stern, Dan'yelle Williamson, Mark Zimmerman.
As directed by Alex Timbers, the infinitely inventive helmer of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love, Rocky is the most impressive staging spectacle to hit New York in many a season. As often as it recreates iconic shots from Sylvester Stallone's 1976 breakout film, such as the grueling training montages and especially his running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art Museum steps and flinging his arms high in ecstasy at his achievement, and does so using theatrical tools (scrims, body doubles, frantic choreography from Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine) that don't let the new versions feel like retreads, it also strives to chisel fresh images and motion that are as dazzling in the theater as the originals were onscreen.
Timbers accomplishes this by letting his production remain in constant motion. The girders, platforms, and walls of Christopher Barreca's set, which evoke the raw glory of working-man Philly's steel and concrete, are forever flying, revolving, and resolving themselves into new shapes and locations that give this relatively confined tale the panoramic sweep of Trevor Nunn and John Caird's Les Misérables. Christopher Akerlind's lights only up the intensity on dreams and reality alike. And the color palette of everything, including David Zinn's costumes, shifts gradually from the unyielding greys of a life mundanely lived to the surging reds, whites, and blues that define the American dream this property has always been about.
So electrifying is Rocky in its stagecraft that it would a pleasure to be able to report that its writing matched the caliber of its presentation. Alas, this is not the case. Though Stallone has collaborated on the book with Thomas Meehan and the score is by the talented team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Once On This Island, Ragtime), this is a musical that never sounds as smart as it looks.
Certainly Stallone has the necessary street cred, having been nominated for Oscars for his screenplay and leading performance, and Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) is no slouch, either. But in shoving aside dialogue and character for song, dance, and those kinetic thrills, they've robbed the story of the heart that was its most critical fuel.
This is not to fault Matthews, who gives the part all the genial authority he can muster, or Seibert, who despite lacking charisma and settled with a spinster-librarian wig creates a generally right vision of a woman who has no faith in anything (most significantly herself)the characters are simply not centrally important enough to have an impact. Better are those performers in smaller roles: Danny Mastrogiorgio as Rocky's friend (and Adrian's brother), Paulie; a saucy Jennifer Mudge as Paulie's girlfriend, Gloria, and a dynamic Terence Archie, who effortlessly blends gentle arrogance with business acumen and rabble-rousing fervor as the go-for-broke Apollo Creed.
But, as this is a musical, all (or most) of these people must sing, and Ahrens and Flaherty have not discovered what they should sing about. Adrian's introductory ballad, "Raining," is a pallid and pedantic look at feelings too deep for that woman at that point. "The Flip Side," an ice-skating duet for Rocky and Adrian, is jarringly cutesy, and their later "Happiness," performed around a Christmas tree, is more maudlin still. Community numbers at the start and end of Act I ("Ain't Down Yet" and "One of Us") capture undirected energy but not the soul of a city that should basically be its own character. Apollo Creed's "Patriotic" and "Undefeated Man" are stylistic mushes within the fabric of the show, but provide a bump of excitement otherwise not found in Ahrens and Flaherty's writing here.
As for Rocky, songs like "Fight From the Heart," about his adoration of Rocky Marciano, and "Keep on Standing" are lifeless stick-to-it songs that check off items on a musical writing list, but aren't necessary for a man who already knows these things too instinctively to have to discover them. The nadir of the character (and the score) is his establishing song, "My Nose Ain't Broken," which catalogs in mind-numbing detail his fighting-induced ailments. Ahrens's lyrics, which comprise such sentiments as "I got ten sore knuckles / And a ringin' ear. / I got a bruise over here / And here and... over here" and "My nose ain't broken / It still looks nice / Don't need not stitches / Don't need no ice," make you wonder how it survived past the first preview.
Karl, a hard-working actor who's paid his dues Off-Broadway (Altar Boyz) and on (Wicked, Legally Blonde, 9 to 5, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), displays an incredible fortitude throughout the show, but it's not enough. Without the deeper scenes of the screenplay, Rocky is a symbol, not a man, and Karl's monotone baritone voice, which conveys no sense of a passionate spirit just longing to be released, doesn't help. Though Karl masterfully navigates the role's punishing athleticism, he doesn't make you believe that Rocky is a man worth knowingor worth anythingin the everyday world.
Only three things come close to doing that. Second, after Timbers's work, is the reuse of key compositions that surge and edify as Flaherty's cannot manage. The theme song, "Gonna Fly Now," with its throbbing horns and persistent percussion, receive its full due as orchestrated (by Stephen Trask and Doug Besterman) and conducted (by Chris Fenwick), as does "Eye of the Tiger," which serves as the underscoring for those montages and the final fight scene.
That fight is the third big success. Set on a boxing ring the slides into the audience from the flies, and consuming the final 20 minutes or so of the show, it's a stunning depiction of Rocky's resilience that, pardon the pun, pulls no punches. Fast-flying fists, quick flips of the set, lightning-fast makeup applications, and shouts from adrenaline-charged cast members transport you into the fiery core of what it means to truly fight for your life.
It's worth pointing out that singing and traditional showmanship are not really a part of the Big Fightit is the first time all evening that anyone involved just lets the story tell itself, and it does so without a single stumble. It is also far more musical than anything that precedes it, suggesting that, despite Timbers's heroic efforts at convincing us otherwise, the organic sound of this place and these people is being stifled, rather than aired, by ham-fistedly forcing it into a form it does not naturally want to occupy.