Rocky The Musical, now open at the Winter Garden Theater, is pure spectacle with hints of earnest bootstrap pulling, which has its perks and its drawbacks. Directed by Alex Timbers, known best for his innovative and ironic Broadway and off-Broadway productions, this classic underdog story becomes equal parts throwback romance and Vegas extravaganza. The set is dizzyingly complicated, making the musical feel true to its filmic roots, but also established in a world of theatrical convention.
Rocky Balboa is a washed up boxer singing proudly about how his “nose ain’t broken” and trying to keep his locker at the local boxing gym and unsuccessfully hitting on his friend’s sister Adrian. Through a stroke of luck (or is it fate), he is selected to be Apollo Creed’s competition in the heavyweight match in his hometown of Philadelphia. Apollo wants to make the show a patriotic one, so he pits himself against a guy who name makes him seem like an Italian Stallion. The formulaic nature of the book (and the film on which it’s based) can’t be helped and has its upsides and drawbacks. The dialogue, written by Tom Meehan, is stilted and occasionally funny—mostly drawing laughs from lines that have been lifted from Sylvester Stallone’s original Oscar-nominated screenplay. The songs and lyrics are unmemorable, unless they’re borrowing from music from the original film. The staging is clever and effectively uses projection and a very muscular chorus to create the world of 1975 Philadelphia. Rocky’s training montage in particular is fun, campy and entertaining.
But it’s unclear what kind of show Rocky is trying to be. Most of the musical seems to run on pure campy fun, but the moments of earnestness seem unearned amidst the spectacle. This issue stems from the earnestness of Rocky Balboa as a character and the juxtaposition between his persona and the rules of musical theatre. All the pieces exist to make Rocky a successful show, but there’s something unsettling. It feels hyper-contemporary while simultaneously relying on old-fashioned gender dynamics. The seduction scene between Rocky and Adrian feels icky rather than well-earned. But these concerns are hidden by the spectacle of the last 20 minutes, which is a dizzingly theatrical boxing match that rivals anything else on Broadway. There’s audience participation, there’s an entire redesign of the Winter Garden Theater and it takes place without a hitch. So in the end, the complications fade away and the audience cheers and jeers as the punches fly and Rocky’s theme soars.
THEATRE REVIEW by Kate Mulley