by Julie Congress · March 24, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #66 Julie Congress comments on Rocky
Exhilarating! Rocky, a new musical based on the iconic film, combines the humanity of live performance with the spectacle of Broadway and the heart-pounding excitement of a live sporting event.
Rocky Balboa is an undereducated but likeable small-time boxer in Philadelphia in 1975. Pushing thirty and forced to work, against his nature, as a collector for a loan-shark, Rocky gets the chance of a lifetime - and his last chance - when world champion boxer Apollo Creed comes to town. When Creed’s scheduled opponent drops out of the match due to a hand injury, Creed decides to pick an unknown local boxer to go up against - choosing Rocky because he likes his self-appointed nickname “The Italian Stallion”. Simultaneously, Rocky finds his true match in Adrian, a shy woman working at the local pet store, and the two underdogs give each other newfound strength.
What struck me most about Rocky was the refreshing honesty and complexity book writers Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone bring to each and every one of the characters. Unlike so many other commercial musicals, there are no “bad guys” - every character is a complex human, rather than a caricature, and is driven by specific wants, needs, and desires. Adrian’s alcoholic brother Paulie is doing his best and, despite his outbursts, takes positive actions to improve various situations. And Apollo Creed, though Rocky’s opponent in the ring, is a legend to be admired - his outrageous showmanship is driven entirely by his love of the sport. By the same token, we love Rocky because of his flaws - his knee-jerk reaction to initially say “no” to an opportunity, his lack of education, his stubbornness - these nicks and bruises create a person so real that we feel like we know him.
Actor Andy Karl’s portrayal of the titular character is impeccable - utterly believable, vibrantly alive, strong, sensitive, and funny all at the same time. Margo Seibert’s Adrian is soft and subtle, with an inner power and energy welling underneath everything she does (and bursting forth so satisfyingly in the powerhouse number “I’m Done”). It is so clear what Rocky and Adrian need in each other and we cannot help but root for them as a couple. Danny Mastrogiorgio’s Paulie and Dakin Matthews’ Mickey (Rocky’s old-school trainer) are people you would meet on the street - their performances are gritty and honest.
Stephen Flaherty’s music, while perhaps not particularly memorable, is lively and engaging. Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics, however, are exceedingly narrative-based and lack the metaphor and imagination one would hope for - in one song Adrian literally narrates all of the actions Rocky is doing onstage (he lights a cigarette, leans against a wall, etc.) and a climactic love song between the two, entitled “Happiness”, is void of the subtlety and imagery behooving this otherwise moving scene (they are decorating a Christmas tree together during the number).
Christopher Barreca’s set design is awe-inspiring. A multitude of locations - apartments, ice skating rink, locker rooms, pet store, gym - slide on and off with mechanical precision and each set is dressed with cinematic detail. The entire theatre is then transformed into an arena for the big fight, activating and engaging us as an audience in a new and exciting way. Alex Timbers’ direction is bold and attention-getting, moving at a steady pace and drawing us inevitably to one of the most exciting theatrical climaxes I’ve seen.
The beauty of Rocky is that while it definitely delivers on spectacle, it is at its heart an earnest, heartfelt story. There is no winking to the audience in this show and no getting ahead of the characters or plot. The story is about the power of the human spirit and I left the Winter Garden Theatre thoroughly inspired and energized.