For those of you who remember, and cherish, the original Rocky film that made an instant star of Sylvester “Sly” Stallone, here’s what you have to know. Thomas Meehan, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who adapted the movie to the musical stage, have kept all the key points of the story, and much of the flavor, and even some of the dialogue, so you won’t be going “Why did they do that?” if you come to see it. They even had some help from Mr. Stallone, who worked on the book of the musical as well. If you’re still curious about what they’ve done to enhance or diminish this favorite movie of yours, fear not — the musical pays great respect to the original, and I think you’ll be very pleased with how they have musically treated its key moments.
First of all, there is “Rocky” himself. You don’t go messing around with an iconic character or an iconic performance. In Andy Karl they have found an actor/singer with major credits as a supporting player in Wicked, 9 to 5, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Legally Blonde with work in film and on TV in between engagements on stage. But once in a while a good actor connects with a good role, and then we have something called “magic.” So it is with Andy Karl and Rocky Balboa; it’s a marriage made in theatrical heaven. Karl has the looks, the physique, the acting chops, the ability to project strength and tenderness that combine to give his performance star quality.
In Alex Timbers they have engaged a director of varied background, but much of his work, most recently on Peter And The Starcatcher has shown his attraction to the unusual and the bizarre. As Rocky as source material is neither bizarre nor all that unusual, the use of a director of great imagination, one who takes risks, is a big plus. From the first moment of the show, when we hear a chorus chanting “He Ain’t Down Yet” as we watch a beautifully choreographed boxing match in which one man is taking a beating, but will not surrender, we know we are going to be in for some startling visual treats as the evening progresses.
That promise is kept, and Christopher Barreca’s settings and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting designs both contribute enormously to giving Rocky the Musical a distinctively grungy yet artistic look of its own throughout.
Flaherty and Ahrens are an experienced Broadway composer/lyricist team, and they have supplied a hard driving score of great merit, though it falls short of measuring up to the great scores of yesteryear. It’s intelligent and occasionally moving musically, though “My Nose Ain’t Broken”, “The Flip Side”, “Fight From The Heart” are lyrically adroit and melodically stageworthy, but that’s about all. They, and “Happiness” and “In The Ring” do further the plot, and they do give the talented actors who sing them a chance to improve their worth by performing them very well.
Rocky’s training sessions, as he prepares for his one chance at the big time, are orchestrated by Stephen Trask and Doug Besterman and choreographed beautifully by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine with the enormous help of Don Scully and Pablo Molina on Visual Design, and Jeremy Chernick on Special Effects.
In support of Andy Karl, leading lady Margo Seibert was absent on the rainy April evening I attended, but Samantha Shafer stepped into the ring as Adrian, the shy and grounded girl who sees Rocky’s worth and eventually falls for him. Her work in the book scenes was particularly moving, and she delivered well enough with the score.
Terence Archie is “Apollo Creed” the world champion heavyweight champ who takes on the unknown and almost laughable Rocky Balboa because his announced opponent broke his hand in training, and with only 4 weeks before the match made it impossible to come up with a worthy replacement. Though Rocky had rarely won a fight in his lower level bouts, he called himself “The Italian Stallion”, and Apollo’s managers thought that would create media interest.
As superbly played by Terence Archie, his flashing white smile and his cock-of-the-walk strut certainly paints the picture of a champion. His Apollo is a man who should always have three gorgeous long-legged ladies following right behind him, and sure enough, that’s what he ‘s got. For those of you who knew, and forgot, how the story ends, all I can say is it ends exactly as it should. Everybody wins, and you can bet the guy gets the girl, which is only fitting.
For those of you who remember Burgess Meredith’s lovely work as “Mickey”, who becomes Rocky’s manager and mentor, this production wisely went in another direction with Dakin Matthews who brings an older, grittier and very appealing manner to the role, landing with both “In The Ring ” and “Wanna Know Why?”, which lyrically is another good idea for a musical number.
I am one of those who remembers the Stallone movie vividly, and I had no real desire to see it musicalized. Now that I’ve been exposed to it, I can assure you this is a fine piece of work. It has integrity, and the creators have worked hard to give it a look and feel of its own. If Andy Karl is able to take the blows, both literal and figurative, that he receives eight times a week onstage, Mr. Stallone will have to share Rocky with him, for he has certainly made the role his own.
I suppose you’ve read about, or heard about the final 15 minute sequence in which a 15 round championship boxing match is staged in a genuine ring. It deserves all the talk it’s creating, and it brings the musical to a smashing conclusion. In it, everyone is in top form– its lighting, costume, set designers, its sound designer, the actors who play the radio reporters, the announcer, the referee, the corner men, and of course the two principals all combine to make the entire house part of this finish, and it’s one you won’t forget.
Rocky is onstage at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway (btwn W 50th & 51st St), NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.