'Rocky' looks like Broadway's next heavyweight champ

Posted: March 14, 2014

ROCKY IS going to run for years on Broadway. How do we know? At a recent preview performance at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre, the (seemingly sold-out) audience went wild when Andy Karl, playing fictional Philly palooka Rocky Balboa, drained two raw eggs into a glass.

That's right. Hundreds of people - most of them adults - went bananas over a couple of cracked eggs. And that's pretty much all you need to know about the $20 million extravaganza that officially opened last night.

Not that the painstakingly middlebrow musical rendering of Sylvester Stallone's beloved 1976 low-budget film doesn't deserve a long, healthy life along the Great White Way. Despite a few annoying flaws, "Rocky" is a rousing, feel-good spectacle obviously designed to push every button a theatergoer wants pushed. Make no mistake: "Rocky" is sentimental and schmaltzy and big-hearted; there is no pretense of anything else.

Book authors Stallone and Thomas Meehan ("Annie," "The Producers") stuck pretty much to the original script for their stage adaptation. The story unfolds in a manner parallel to that of the flick, following the title character's arc from his days as a going-nowhere club fighter/loan-shark collector to his climactic world championship bout with the Muhammad Ali-esque Apollo Creed.

About the biggest departure is the rather perplexing gifting of the sad-sack Paulie with an extremely hot girlfriend, who now is the owner of the pet shop where Rocky's romantic obsession, Adrian, is employed. But those changes are little more than minor distractions. So right off the bat, there's the knowledge that fans of the movie aren't in for any major surprises.

The-still-set-in-the-mid-'70s "Rocky" operates at a very high level on just about every front. The score by composer Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is somewhat generic, but ably covers a variety of formats including funk, R&B and arena-rock power balladry. But, in the established manner of modern-day musical theater, the songs function primarily as sung dialogue and exposition (sorry, but I'm not hearing Michael Buble interpreting "My Nose Ain't Broken"). But that doesn't mean the score doesn't serve the plot extremely well, with Rocky's "Fight From the Heart" and "Keep on Standing," and Adrian's "I'm Done" the early favorites to be the show's sonic calling cards.

While the entire cast is first-rate, there's no question the show lives or dies on the work of the impressively buff Karl.

Taking on such an iconic and deeply-ingrained character is a courageous, if somewhat dangerous, move. Stallone's characterization is so rooted in our collective consciousness that it would be easy for Karl to hang Rocky's beat-up fedora on mere impersonation. But the Broadway vet ("Legally Blonde," "Jersey Boys") manages the near-impossible: He pays homage to Stallone's prototype but makes the character his own. He's not Stallone, but he is Rocky. That means he should start working on his acceptance speech for his inevitable Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award.

Of course, there is no Rocky without Adrian, the mousy spinster to whom Rocky devotes his love and life. Margo Seibert likewise takes the celluloid template and adjusts it to fit. And there is enough chemistry between the two leads to make their romance credible.

In key supporting roles, Terence Archie as the bombastic, swaggering Creed, Dakin Matthews as Mickey, Rocky's wizened manager-trainer and Danny Mastrogiorgio as Paulie get the job done. But their participation is a tad problematic because none of the actors physically resemble their motion picture counterparts. Here, Creed is completely bald, Mickey is larger than Burgess Meredith (and has a belly to boot) and Mastrogiorgio is taller, slimmer and far more attractive than the character rendered by Burt Young in the movies.

But the bigger problem with this Paulie is that he is nowhere near the lowlife loser we've known and loved these many decades. That removes some of the hard edge this production probably could have used.

Despite the human elements, it's likely some of the biggest buzz will be about the program's astonishing staging, which certainly equals any technological marvels Broadway has seen to date. We don't want to give away too much, but suffice it to say Rocky's signature runs through the Italian Market and up the art museum steps (which also received their own roar of applause) are satisfyingly portrayed.

But "Rocky" saves the best for last: The final 15 minutes or so feature the Balboa-Creed match staged on a boxing ring that replaces the first eight rows of seating. Those who hold tickets there are ushered to onstage bleachers. The "square circle" is sure to be this decade's equivalent of the chandelier in "Phantom Of the Opera" or the barricade of "Les Miserables."

However, it is to director Alex Timbers' credit that the humanity that is the lifeblood of the "Rocky" tale is never overwhelmed by the technology. For all its bells and whistles, this remains a story of determination, redemption and, of course, true love.

Besides its many other charms, Rocky has to be the most "Philly" Broadway musical ever - a veritable love letter to us. As everything from the Spectrum, Rittenhouse Hotel and Frankford El to Snyder Avenue, St. Joseph's Hospital and WPVI (6ABC) are represented and referenced, they should probably include a glossary in the Playbill for non-Delaware Valleyans (interestingly, the word "cheesesteak" is never uttered).

But as noted, this musical retelling of "Rocky" isn't without its faults. Most egregious is the show's reliance on the word "southside" when referring to Rocky's ostensible South Philly home turf (it even appears in the title of the song, "Southside Celebrity"). The real joke, of course, is that the movie Rocky lived in Kensington.

And "Rocky" carries on the decadeslong showbiz tradition of actors who sound nothing like us portraying Philadelphians. As usual, what the cast probably honestly believes are legitimate Philly ack-sents comes off as watered-down New York patois. The exception is Kevin Del Aguila, who, in the small role of the skating rink watchman whom Rocky bribes for 10 minutes of Thanksgiving night ice time, actually sounds like he has more than a passing acquaintance with our mother tongue.

Finally, when the Winter Garden is transformed to suggest the Spectrum, banners are suspended from the ceiling. One trumpets the Flyers' 1975 Stanley Cup win, which is fine. But the other commemorates the 76ers' 1955 NBA world championship. Obviously, no one bothered to consult Google: Philadelphia's NBA franchise in 1955 was the Warriors; the Sixers didn't begin life until 1963. We mentioned that discrepancy to one of the show's producer's after the performance. We'll see if it's corrected.

But it's only when so much is right about a play that pointing out such trivialities makes sense. And not only is "Rocky" so right, its left hook ain't too shabby either.

In other words, "Rocky" is indeed a knockout.


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

 

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