This new musical version of Rocky premiered last year in Germany, an appropriate choice: the 1976 movie and its five sequels are their own kind of Ring cycle. And that is, in fact, the key word here, as the main reason to see this spectacle is the stately Act Two emergence, from the proscenium into the audience, of a boxing ring. What precedes that coup is, in Broadway terms, an unexpectedly intimate affair – a well-acted, occasionally dull and sometimes touching story of two wounded souls: Rocky Balboa, a piddling club fighter, and Adrian, a bespectacled clerk at a pet store.
Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the book, follow the outlines of the original movie: Rocky takes on low-level fights in south Philadelphia even as he dreams of greater things. We meet Apollo Creed, the boxing champion and Rocky’s eventual opponent, through a Dreamgirls-ish number that seems almost out of place amid the string of ballads that the composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have concocted to set up the love story.
If this is not Flaherty and Ahrens’ finest work – I prefer their chamber shows such as Dessa Rose to their symphonic creations such as Ragtime – they are able, initially, to steer Rocky clear of the packaged hysteria associated with the movie’s sequels. Rocky, portrayed by Andy Karl, delivers an affecting “My Nose Ain’t Broken” as his first solo and Adrian, played by Margo Seibert, sings “Raining” as hers.
But as we move from love at home in Act One to war in the ring in Act Two, the production, directed by Alex Timbers, amps up the effects. There are two training montages, which include Rocky skipping rope, Rocky pounding beef carcasses in the butcher’s shop run by Adrian’s brother, Paulie (played beautifully by Danny Mastrogiorgio), and, inevitably, Rocky climbing steps so that the “Rocky” theme may blare.
“Eye of the Tiger” joins the cacophony preceding the climactic bout between Rocky and Apollo. And it becomes apparent that the musical Rocky subscribes to the method of Mamma Mia! – the previous piece of cheese to take over this theatre, the Winter Garden, for aeons – for ensuring a hit: wallop the audience for the final 15 minutes. The fight, which includes movement by choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine, draws in the audience. By then, Andy Karl’s painstaking performance as Rocky disappears among the cheers.