Rocky on Broadway: An In-Depth Review
By Randall Lotowycz
Let’s just get it out of the way: Rocky is a milestone in America cinema. It’s a flawlessly realized character study that balances a somber tenderness with moments of humor and a visceral finale with every element seemingly in place. Every frame is marked by an aching sincerity. This sincerity was carried over into the first sequel, but unfortunately largely absent until the sixth entry in the series, 2006’s Rocky Balboa. It is the sequels in between the decades where the legacy of Rocky was constructed around training montages, the Rocky III introduction of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the overall cheesiness and jingoism of Rocky IV, losing sight of what made the original film so powerful.
The new Broadway musical, also entitled Rocky, could have easily followed the same tropes of those middle sequels and offer little more than superficiality and spectacle, but fortunately strives for much more. As a fiercely devoted adaptation of the original film, the show aims to recreate the raw emotion of its source in a new medium. Does it succeed? Not necessarily, but its efforts are highly commendable.
Filling the shoes of Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire is not an enviable task. The actors have become synonymous with their iconic characters and no one else has played them before. I’m certain this puts the new cast in a difficult position, as they cannot stray too far from the source portrayals, but also do not want to simply ape the original performances.
Andy Karl stars as the titular character. He gives a serviceable though not stellar Rocky. It’s eerie to watch his walk and immediately identify it with the character. His singing is good and he capably kept up with the physical demands of the performance, but his biggest flaw is an inability to play tough without coming off as angry and loud. Rocky shouldn’t be quick-tempered. It’s in his nature to keep taking hits, emotionally and physically, and continue moving forward (note: I’m paraphrasing these words from a wonderful monologue in Rocky Balboa). This reserved quality made the moments when the character does let loose even more powerful. Karl’s Rocky shows his frustrations immediately, which ultimately doesn’t ring true to the character. Even if something bothered Rocky, he wouldn’t always come out and say it on the spot.
Margo Seibert’s portrayal of Adrian is far more successful. She embodies all the right aspects of Talia Shire’s performance, while also making the best of opportunities that Shire did not have. The Adrian of the film interacts almost exclusively with Rocky and her brother Paulie. In the show, she’s given more time with her boss at the pet store and a couple of peers, allowing Seibert to bring Adrian into new territories. She is also able to play a part in Rocky’s efforts to get them in the ice skating rink. With just a subtle cough to support Rocky’s claim to the rink’s employee that she’s feeling ill, Adrian is now a participant in the moment instead of a bystander. It earned a deserved laugh from the audience. Most importantly, Seibert’s singing is crucial to her success in the role. It is a natural extension of her character, enhancing her performance when it could have worked against portraying a shy and quiet character.
Terence Archie, like Karl, turned in an adequate performance as Rocky’s opponent Apollo Creed. He does well at emulating the surface level Creed, a proud and boastful man, but he doesn’t get deeper than that. As originally portrayed by Carl Weathers, Creed is a powerful, if not frightening, man. His public persona is in direct opposition to his nature in the boxing ring. No one would want to be on the receiving end of one of Creed’s punches. To say Archie is in excellent physical shape would be an understatement; he looks like he was carved out of stone. But his Creed doesn’t offer the threat of ferocity behind that veil of swagger.
At no fault of actor Danny Mastrogiorgio, the role of Paulie is reduced from the film. I believe it was result of an extended role for Gloria, Adrian’s boss at the pet store (portrayed by Jennifer Mudge), as well as being Paulie’s on-again/off-again girlfriend in the show. Both actors present capable and strong supporting performances. Rounding out the cast is Dakin Matthews as Rocky’s trainer Mickey. He succeeds admirably at bringing the character to life. His Mickey has been around for decades and wears his bruises like badges. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind, as well as admit when he’s wrong. Next to Seibert, Matthews offers the most satisfying performance in the show.
Adapted from the film by Thomas Meehan (Tony Award winner for Best Book of a Musical for Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray) and Stallone himself, the show is so faithful to the film that it is easier to discuss what’s different. As mentioned, Gloria is given an expanded role and two friends who provide some additional comedic moments. They do not add anything to the story, but certainly do not detract from it. At the very least, it’s great to have a few additional female roles in a predominantly male cast. Surprisingly, my favorite scene was one that deviated the most from the source material. The Christmas night scene and Adrian’s big confrontation with Paulie was moved from her home to Rocky’s apartment. Despite the change in setting, the scene highlights even more of Adrian, illuminating her character arc as she tries to make a lovely Christmas for her and Rocky. It was in that scene where the show clicked and justified its existence. It made me wish Meehan and Stallone took more risks and did not rely so much on sticking to the film script.
Another welcome addition was the specter of Rocky’s namesake – Rocky Marciano. As with the film, a poster with his image adorns a wall in Rocky’s apartment, but his presence is now felt throughout. Marciano’s successful career is a measuring stick for our Rocky’s failures. He’s someone our Rocky calls on when making a crucial decision. He is everything our Rocky wanted to be, but never had the shot.
The songs in Rocky do not reach a level of achievement that the high-water mark of film-to-musical adaptation Hairspray does. In Hairspray, each song, in addition to complementing the strong writing, was memorable, if not unforgettable. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve seen that show and I still find myself occasionally singing the songs to myself. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens provide Rocky‘s music and lyrics respectively. They are the duo behind Seussical and Ragtime. What they offer Rocky is familiar, but nowhere in the league of the film’s iconic score by Bill Conti. That score was timeless, whereas the songs in the musical feel very much of a time, and not necessarily of the time in which the story takes place (1976). At one point I was thinking Tom Petty, another Ellis Paul. The strongest of the songs —“Fight from the Heart” and “Wanna Know Why”— seemed to end too quickly while weaker ones might have gone on a little too long. “My Nose Ain’t Broken” was a charming number true to the spirit of the material, but ultimately came off too simplistic. The same goes for “The Flip Side” which is Rocky and Adrian’s first duet and ought to have been one of the high points of the show. I could have done without the inclusion of “Eye of the Tiger” in the second training montage. I understood why they included it, but it wouldn’t have been missed.
The stage itself is the show’s greatest character. It’s alive and dynamic, a technical wonder. Director Alex Timbers and set designer Chris Barreca deserve much praise for what they created. As you might know, Rocky is performed at the Winter Garden Theatre, home to former Broadway mega hits Cats and Mama Mia. To take over that space and make it their own is remarkable. Audience members located Center Orchestra rows AA-F will get the added treat of joining the stage for the big finale. While that might seem exciting, I highly recommend finding something in rows G thru M. These seats offer a “front row” like experience to the big finale when the boxing ring literally comes off the stage into the orchestra.
When discussing the finale, I must call attention to the brilliant choreography by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine. The choreography throughout is great, but at the end, it’s simply astonishing. There’s an element of theater magic wondering how Karl and Archie pull off such a physically demanding and perfectly constructed battle. The result is adrenaline-fueled excitement. Bravo to all parties for their accomplishment.
This review is heavy on criticism, but rightfully deserving of it. So much care and attention was put into the show and I felt any fewer words would not do it justice. If you love the Rocky film series or if you just love a large Broadway production, go see this show. You’ll be standing and cheering by the end.
Check out their site for more info: Rocky on Broadway
Randall is an I&C contributor and is most recently the author of The Mini Book of Mini Darts: The Book, the Boards, the Darts, and 43 Games
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