ROCKY on Broadway
A few years ago, I was doing my traditional after-Christmas shopping and walked into our local Carlton Card store. Each year, Carlton has a select number of ornaments dedicated to the movies – some contemporary and some classic. This particular year, the movie ornament was from Rocky – the Oscar winning movie from 1976. Rocky was not one of my all time favorite movies…I enjoyed it and I appreciate it but – truth be told – I would not buy the ornament. However. at 75% off, this was a steal, especially since I wasn’t purchasing it for myself. Someone special to me had dropped a hint at some point. You see, my secretary, Sylvia, mentioned to me – I thought several times – that Rocky was her favorite movie. She went on and on and on about it. So, I thought this would be a perfect gift for her the following Christmas.
I held the ornament for eleven months on my bookshelf at the office. I delicately wrapped it and placed it in a bag, along with a few other items. I was so excited. Melting with anticipation, I watched Sylvia unwrap my find. Her reaction was priceless – “Oh how nice.” I immediately knew something was wrong as it certainly was not the reaction I was expecting. “Isn’t Rocky your favorite movie of all time?” I asked. She howled with laughter and yelled, “NO, I NEVER SAID THAT!!!” Totally dismayed, I took the ornament back. Six months later, while preparing for my garage sale, I found out that it was my Cousin Lisa who had that now infamous conversation with me. Lisa did not want the ornament either and it sold that weekend.
Although my past experiences with this material have been a little “rocky” to say the least, I purchased tickets to “Rocky” on Broadway with some excitement but also some trepidation. When it premiered in Germany in 2012, it wowed audiences and critics. However, European audiences and critics differ greatly from their U.S. counterparts. We are more cynical and we expect so much more from our theater experiences – and we should. Naturally, I expected a lot from this venture and for the most part, my expectations were fulfilled.
Everyone knows the basic story line of Rocky and there are clearly two stories evolving at the same time. Rocky is falling in love and Rocky needs to fight to prove to himself that he is worthy of both loving and being loved. The first act plants those ideas in our heads and introduces us to the characters and their flaws – and then their dreams. “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” was one of the first songs of the show and it allows the Rocky character to really embrace his shortcomings but also his confidence. Andy Karl is just terrific in this role. Having seen him in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Jersey Boys, the role of Rocky allows him to shine — and while he is physically fit and in great shape, one might think he is too small to play the role. However, any shortcoming he might have in stature he makes up for in his sincerity as Rocky. He is simple and honest, but also so downtrodden that you have to be on his side. He allows us to feel for him and with him. So when he and Adrian, played by the fantastic Margo Siebert, meet and begin their relationship, you want them to win more than you want him to win in the ring. Flaherty and Ahrens songs are tender and allow the two to fall in love against a backdrop of some lovely ballads.
While Act One does what it is supposed to do in setting the stage for a great second act, it lacks luster and needs some work. This is not to say that the lighting, the staging and the sound are not amazing – they are — but the book is a little weak. You get through it and feel that you just needed more excitement. Then – like a boxing match, just you think they are down –they come right back and dazzle you with one of the most exciting pieces of theater I have seen.
Every amazing asset of this show’s Act Two certainly makes up for a less exciting Act One. The characters have found themselves and now it is off to the match and this is where the technology knocks you out. The stage moves and bridges and walkways are elevated, the video projections of scenes of the city are played as Rocky does his early morning training sessions. It is a dazzling spectacle that is only enhanced when there are other men dressed like Rocky running along side him as he ascends the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. This sets the pace and the tone for the rest of the show.
In a show that depends so much on special effects, the actors can easily be overshadowed. That does not happen. They shine through thanks to the material and the brilliance of the acting. When she has had enough of her brother’s abuses, Adrian throws him out singing “I’m Done,” a number that stopped the show the night I was there. The song will surely be a cabaret staple and Siebert is destined for a Tony nomination. Her performance takes Adrian from the shy, subservient woman taking care of her inept brother, to a woman with a heart and mind of her own, now looking out for herself and her relationship with Rocky first. Terrence Archie’s Apollo Creed is so over the top entertaining that it cannot be anything but excellent. The supporting cast performs admirably.
When it is time for the fight, we are once again not only invited into a world of amazing technology but we are transformed – attending a boxing match. The people in the first twelve rows of the center orchestra are asked to leave their seats to take their ringside seats on stage. The boxing ring is lifted above the audience and there are huge video screens allowing the audience to see every part of the big event. The entire transformation is spectacular turning into an unprecedented piece of theatrical excellence. By the time its over, it does not matter who won the fight.. you are dazzled by the knock out.
I suppose for the purist segment of the theater crowd, Rocky might seem like they are giving into technology for a thrill, but it is a new world out there – a new and exciting world that we need to embrace and of which we need to advance. Feel good and go see Rocky.