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Theatre in Review: Rocky (Winter Garden Theatre)

Andy Karl in Rocky. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

If Rocky turns out to be Broadway's next blockbuster, it will be because of Alex Timbers, the next great theatre showman. The same director who presided over the conversion of the Bernard B. Jacobs into a bizarre recreation room/museum of American history for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, who renovated the Public Theater's LuEsther Hall into a pulsing disco for Here Lies Love, and who made a raucous musical farce out of Love's Labor's Lost, offers his most audacious coup de théâtre yet, turning the Winter Garden into a boxing arena for a brutal showdown between the musical's two antagonists.

It happens late in Act II, when Rocky Balboa, a longtime loser making his last desperate grab at the big time, squares off against the flamboyant champion Apollo Creed. A boxing ring is flown out into the house, landing over the first several rows of center orchestra seats. The patrons seated there are redeployed to bleachers on stage. Video screens fly into place, and an onstage bridge, decorated with LED tubes, flies in, containing a pair of sportscasters. A live video crew shoots the battle that follows, as the ring revolves, revealing the action from multiple points of view. It's a fast-moving piece of legerdemain, astonishingly efficient in its crowd control, and convincing to the last detail.

To say that this sequence has a rousing effect on the audience is putting it mildly. At the performance I attended, the house was shaken to its foundations by the cheering, stomping, boxing-crazed crowd. Was there one person in the house who didn't know how the fight would end? Surely not, but it didn't matter; pandemonium reigned. It certainly helped that the 18-minute-long fight sequence, stunningly choreographed by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine,, is a genuine thriller, conveying the blood- and sweat-soaked brutality of the sport -- as Rocky and Creed put themselves in harm's way, risking crippling injuries over the course of 15 savage rounds.

It's to the advantage of Rocky, the musical, that this final sequence sends the audience out on a major high, because the rest of the show punches below its weight. The idea of making a musical out of Sylvester Stallone's career-making 1976 film vehicle -- a Cinderella man story with instantly sympathetic characters, a touching romance, and a big blowout of a climax -- must have looked good on paper, but in practice, it makes a perilously thin basis for a full-length musical. The underpowered first act of Thomas Meehan and Stallone's libretto introduces the principals at a measured pace -- Rocky, who works for a numbers runner, threatening to break the fingers of gambling deadbeats; Adrian, the waif of his dreams, who toils as a pet shop clerk; Paulie, Adrian's abusive brother, who dreams of being a made man; Mickey, the grizzled ring veteran who sees in Rocky one last shot at glory; and Creed, the strutting, self-adoring champ who cooks up the battle with Rocky as a no-brainer publicity stunt. Fans of the film will be gratified to see their favorite moments recreated -- Rocky punching cattle carcasses and drinking raw eggs for breakfast, Adrian's climactic rush into the boxing ring, and the iconic run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

But the first act is all exposition and no drama, and it suffers from a serious case of the mopes. Rocky is introduced with a touching number, "My Nose Ain't Broken," in which he proudly and pathetically tots up the few positives in his life. Adrian has an attractive, Carly Simon-ish ballad, "Raining," which reveals her suppressed feelings for Rocky. But their relationship is devoid of conflict or suspense, and the act suffers from too many low-key numbers that act as an energy drain. Creed has the brassy "Patriotic," outlining his outrageous plan for a publicity-grabbing liberty-themed bout, but it never really builds into a showstopper, and the attempt at a rousing first-act finale, a company-wide anthem called "One of Us," in which the whole city gets behind Rocky, seems to come out of nowhere.

Some of these problems are built in to the original material, which is surprisingly hushed and intimate until the final sequence of fisticuffs. At the same time, the scenes of Rocky and Adrian gently, haltingly opening up to each other are pretty much lost in a theatre the size of the Winter Garden. (A sweet duet, "The Flip Side," set in a closed ice-skating rink at night, doesn't quite make us fall in love with them.) And Rocky proves to be an oddly passive character on which to hang a musical; aside from his courting of Adrian, the events of the play mostly happen to him until the finale. Watching him train for the fight in two lengthy -- and admittedly dazzlingly designed and staged -- sequences don't really constitute meaningful dramatic action.

The songs, by the top-flight team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, are casually melodic and often touching (especially a little item called "Happiness," in which Adrian and Rocky dream of a life together as they decorate the Christmas tree); they also have a genuine mid-'70s pop feel, as if the characters are expressing themselves through the music they would hear on their radios. But Ahrens and Flaherty's entirely honorable determination not to overinflate a small story results in a score that suffers from a certain sameness and, too often, a rather slow pulse. It's not until we get to "Eye of the Tiger," taken from the film Rocky III and applied to two lengthy sequences showing Rocky training for the fight, that Rocky, the musical, gets the jolt of electricity it so sorely needs.

As Rocky and Adrian, Andy Karl and Margo Seibert work honestly and well, creating a pair of damaged adults whose emotional scars make them oddly perfect for each other. Karl captures Rocky's discomfort with himself as well as his dogged determination to keep pursuing his dream, although it isn't until nearly intermission that his voice gets a real workout, in the number "Fight from the Heart." Seibert captures Adrian's crippling shyness as well as her pent-up agony and rage; she also makes a genuinely touching moment out of her big transformation, when, encouraged by Rocky's love, she emerges from the bathroom in a brightly colored party dress. As Creed, Terence Archie is shortchanged by a role that gives him little more to do than enter every few minutes and thump his chest. Dakin Matthews has a charmingly offhand way with Mickey's gruff dialogue and makes something real out of the scene in which he berates Rocky for wasting his talent. Danny Mastrogiorgio is appropriately gritty as the alternately bullying and pathetic Paulie. Jennifer Mudge has some nice moments as Paulie's skeptical heart-of-gold girlfriend.

In addition to the big fight sequence, Christopher Barreca's spectacular set design places the action in an industrial warehouse environment, into which roll units showing various row house flats (Rocky's is a dump and Adrian's is as neat as a pin), a pet shop, a locker room, and other locations. He makes especially good use of a scenic bridge that flies in to narrow the focus of certain scenes; it's about all he can do to help create a more intimate atmosphere, and it is appreciated. Christopher Akerlind's lighting design is filled both with bold gestures -- highly directional looks filled with big beams -- and careful detail work, illuminating the smaller scenes with nice touches. The video, by Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina, transmits live video footage of the boxing action and fills the stage with stunning collages of black-and-white imagery as Rocky prepares for the fight; there's also a nifty touch in the pet shop scenes, where rows of fish tanks are really video screens. David Zinn's costumes feel thoroughly accurate to the characters and 1976 time frame; he honors the characters' iconic looks without being slavish about it, and he also has fun with the vulgar getups for the girls hired to dress up the fight with a bicentennial theme. Peter Hylenski's sound design is sensitively rendered for the ballads and appropriately bombastic for the big numbers; among other effects, he trebles the power of each landed blow in the final fight.

And if Timbers hasn't been able to reconcile the contradictions of a show that wants to be both a tender little indie musical and an epic battle to the finish, at least he finally delivers the spectacle that the audience wants from Rocky. Like its climactic bout, however, the most it can manage is a technical knockout.--David Barbour

(14 March 2014)

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