Mar 13, 2014
It’s been four decades since Sylvester Stallone turned himself into the unlikeliest of screen superstars by playing a small-time Philadelphia boxer who longs to be a contender. Now “Rocky,” a no-budget quickie that grossed $225 million, won the best-picture Oscar and spawned five sequels, has become a big-budget Broadway musical with a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime”) and a book co-written by Mr. Stallone and Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers”). That’s a high-toned pedigree, especially for a musical based on a movie that the cognoscenti long ago wrote off as a lowbrow joke.
Let’s start, then, by stipulating that the film is excellent of its kind, a juicy cinematic cheesesteak that does exactly what it sets out to do. Pauline Kael got “Rocky” right when she deigned to admit that “its naïve, emotional shamelessness is funny and engaging.” ( John Simon liked it, too!) What’s more, the stage version, directed with immense panache and soaring physicality by Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”), is very nearly as good, an unpretentious slice of honest entertainment whose rock-’em-sock-’em finale will set the snobbiest of theatergoers to cheering in spite of themselves.
In the manner of most screen-to-stage musical-comedy adaptations, “Rocky” sticks closely, at times slavishly, to the source, with the best lines from Mr. Stallone’s screenplay incorporated more or less verbatim into the book (“I’ll carry him for a couple of rounds and then drop him in the third like a bad habit”). Likewise Andy Karl, the star, who does a baldly straightforward Stallone impersonation. (Not so Margo Seibert, a superior singer who succeeds in finding her own way into the character of Adrian, Rocky’s plain-Jane neighborhood girlfriend, who was played so well in the film by Talia Shire. ) Here, though, that’s not a complaint, for the faithfulness of the adaptation is also the source of its strength: Like the film, it gives you lots of what you want.
It helps that the rock-flavored songs, which in musicals of this sort typically prove to be an incapacitating impediment, are generally quite good, though I confess to having smiled at Mr. Karl’s big number, whose title is “My Nose Ain’t Broken.” The ballads are all heartfelt and irony-free, and one of them, “Raining,” is memorable: “I wonder if / He’ll be back again / With his broken face / And his hard-luck life / And his sad brown eyes.” (Ms. Seibert does it beautifully, by the way.) It stands to reason that Mr. Flaherty has chosen to weave Bill Conti’s Top-40 main-title theme into his own music for “Rocky,” but he’s done so with discretion, mostly using its melodic shapes as background leitmotifs.
Mr. Timbers’s staging and Christopher Barreca’s scenic design are the stuff Tony nominations are made of. The neon-and-graffiti mean streets of South Philly are portrayed with grim verisimilitude, but the glitz starts to fly as the climactic fight scene draws nearer, and the fight itself is a total-immersion, spare-no-expense stage spectacle. Since Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine are jointly credited with the show’s choreography, I assume that they deserve much credit for the potency of this scene, which is a rich and masterly synthesis of movement, music and design.
So yes, “Rocky” is a straight-down-the-center commodity musical—but a damned fine one, maybe the best I’ve ever seen. A knockdown hit, in fact.