Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Knock Out On Broadway

In December of 1976, the movie Rocky was introduced to the world. An indie movie that showed triumph of not only the underdog - but of the man, Sylvester Stallone, that made a low budget film that brought in millions. As a second grader, I didn't understand the backstory of this man following his passion to get the movie made, but I sure experienced something like never before when my parents took me to see the film. I was up cheering along with the rest of the audience as we could not be contained to our seats. Had anyone told that wide-eyed kid that movie would one day become a Broadway musical, I probably would have laughed.

But here it is on Broadway all these years later with a book by Thomas Meehan and a score
by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. One of my favorite writing teams that brought us Ragtime, Dessa Rose, and Once on This Island. Not exactly the team one would expect to write about the tough guy from Philly. Nor would I think the man behind Annie, Hairspray and The Producers would be penning the story. But the cream of Broadway was brought together to share this story on stage.

It is obvious the producers are going after people that love the film and especially attempting to get men into the theater. The commercials airing on television never even mention it's a musical. And yes, they've included songs from the movie. The excitement I felt as a child seeing the film - well, I can tell you it happens again in the last 15 minutes of this stage experience. They even bring audiences members up on stage to surround the fighting ring during the infamous fight, the ring comes out over the audience, and certain audiences members are instructed to stand to capture the feeling of what so many felt back in the 70s seeing this movie for the first time.

Let me get this out there - it's entertaining. There, I said it. Everyone wants to hate on it, but when you hear the Rocky theme, you can't help but smile. So naturally they are playing into our memory and nostalgia to get to us. When things like drinking raw eggs and climbing steps gets applause, you know it's because of the movie. The scenic design by Christopher Barreca is truly incredible. The stage changes constantly, yet keeps us in an industrial feel, lighted wonderfully by Christopher Akerlind. Director Alex Timbers and choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine keep the evening moving. And boy is the choreography during the fight incredible. All of this makes for a very impressive and entertaining evening. 

But this is a Broadway musical. Something I've spent a lifetime studying, so I feel I should discuss it from that standpoint. A song should occur in a musical when a character is so overcome by emotion or a feeling that they must sing. There are a few of those moments in this show, but they are few and far between. There was a small glimpse in Act II where Rocky started to sing what he was feeling as everyone was riding the wave of the big fight and suddenly I went "that is a true musical moment", but it ended before it began. Even his big '11 o'clock number' "Keep on Standing" felt flat. Personally, the score is just serviceable. I was very disappointed because I love this writing  team so much, but the best musical moments in the show was the use of "Eye of The Tiger" and the Rocky Theme. I think this would have played so much better as a play with music. And I can't help but think the producers feel the same since they keep quiet about it being a musical. 

The ensemble in this show (with every male perfectly chiseled, I might add) are working their butts off, often singing lyrics that can't always be heard. Still, the cast is all doing a really great job telling the story written by Meehan (which is why I say a play would have worked). Dakin Matthews and Terence Archie are giving memorable performances in roles  we recall well from the film as Mickey and Apollo. Archie is always strutting around with his entourage and boxes like a real pro. Margo Seibert makes her Broadway debut as Adrian and has the best vocal moments in the show. I wasn't sure if was because the writing team chose to write her the best songs or if it was just her voice was so amazing. I really thought her acting and singing were some of the best in the entire evening. She felt connected to her role in a way I didn't see from anyone else on the stage. I will definitely be watching for her name to show up again on Broadway after this. Danny Mastrogiorgio is strapped with playing the waste of a brother Paulie which appears even more one dimensional on stage than it did in the film. And then there is Rocky.

Andy Karl has been part of the Broadway scene for several years and it is wonderful producers took a chance with him to carry this show. He has the swagger. He has the moves. He has the bod. But personally, there was a spark missing for this audience member. I did not want to compare him to Stallone as that would not be fair. But as I look at other leading men from this season (Norbert Leo Butz, Steven Pasquale) that shined brightly in their roles, Karl plays his role at a lower key as he attempts to convey the street "Italian Stallion" and I never get the sense of a star in the making. Maybe that was the point. To show that Rocky is an "everyman" and nothing that special about him. My issue may not actually be with Karl himself, but with the way in which he was directed. But for a show that centers around this man, I needed more charisma. (For the record, my friend attending with me did not feel the same way.)

The other big issue I had with this mammoth show is that like another show based on a movie that ran on Broadway (the swinging spiderman), this show lost the heart of the show. The love story between Rocky and Adrian was so small, it never soared for me. There have been other big love stories on stage this year. Big Fish, the lovers had me with one look and time stopped. Bridges of Madison County - they were smoldering and we could feel it. This show spent so much time on the spectacle that I lost that love that you cheer for in the film. Yes, we were all cheering for Rocky to win in the ring, but we were just as excited when he was screaming for Adrian at the movie's end. For this, I went out reliving the moment of my youth, but not feeling the love between the two I had seen on stage.

Still, as numerous reviews said, it is well worth the experience…even for those that don't care about musicals. You may not even feel you're watching a musical by the time you leave the Winter Garden Theatre. You will think you've been to a fight at that other garden in town - Madison Square.  

1 comment:

  1. It's a pity, that Rocky didn't have the succuss he deserves. And i still wonder why. I visited Rocky in Hamburg / Germany i'm not the only one who found it one of the most breathtaking and stunning musicals i ever saw - you're absolutely right with your last sentence. And while visiting Rocky with my wife i noticed that this musical fits best for boys and girls! So i really don't understand, why this show has lost on broadway?!