The huge Winter Garden — lately home to the inane juggernaut Mamma Mia! — is not a theater in which you’d expect to find a sad and delicate romance. Yet one is playing out there. Amid gorgeous shadows and the monumental grimness of a city in decline, a scrappy small-time boxer, pursuing modest dreams of redemption in the ring and in love, hits apparent dead ends in both. At 29, he’s past his prime as a fighter; meanwhile Adrian, the girl he likes, is withdrawn to the point of hostility. They’re each other’s “flip side,” they slowly learn: The boxer convinced he’s all body, no brain, the abused Adrian just the opposite. That he’s not as dumb as he looks, nor she as plain as her cat’s-eye glasses indicate, is hardly a novel narrative notion, but it makes for a touching theatrical combo. Unfortunately, this two-character, black-and-white kitchen-sink drama, reminiscent of Paddy Chayefsky in his made-for-TV days, is trapped inside (and eventually strangled by) a garishly colorful bloated mess of an unmusical musical called Rocky.
This was inevitable. From its inception, Rocky the musical was a cynical endeavor, driven not by artistic necessity or even plausibility but financial opportunity. (The movie Rocky and its five sequels, all written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, have grossed more than $1.5 billion, adjusted for inflation.) The notion of characters who can barely talk, who are by definition stuck in place, being made to sing and dance — in Philadelphia, yet — was so patently misguided as to invite ridicule. Bringing aboard some of the most highly regarded talents in the field to get around the problem only made it worse. These artists, trying harder and succeeding more than you might expect, have only exaggerated by contrast the contours of their overall failure. This was a job, if ever there was one, for Frank Wildhorn.
Take the score, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who (as Ragtime demonstrated) know their way around iconic Americana. They work very carefully here, slowly developing a general musical atmosphere with shards of sung dialogue before allowing the emergence of a straight-up song. But, boy, do you feel the work. Ahrens, scrambling for hooks that won’t sound musical theaterish and twee, has actually found some, but they come at the cost of a certain outlandishness, like Rocky’s introductory solo “My Nose Ain’t Broken.” Similarly, Flaherty has identified a reasonable sound for the gritty story: guitar-heavy, with throbbing-headache bass, and bright chrome-on-a-used-car flugelhorning as suggested by Bill Conti’s original movie scores. (Both “Eye of The Tiger,” from Rocky III, and the Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now” are incorporated.) But within that compelling sound Flaherty mostly fails to make compelling songs. A certain amount of murk is acceptable, even desirable, as in Adrian’s sad-and-lovely introductory number, “Rain”:
THE SKY IS OVERFLOWING,
THE RIVER’S MORE LIKE A BAY.
YES, IF IT KEEPS ON RAINING
I MIGHT FLOAT AWAY
But because garage-band writing, however apt for the material, doesn’t develop but rather repeats in torpid cells, the songs don’t lift: They barely even move. Instead, the set does.
Indeed, the physical production is almost too expressive of Rocky’s real nature. It’s schizoid. Within the love story, the scenery (by Christopher Barreca) and the lighting (by Christopher Akerlind) and the costumes (by David Zinn) all work together to valorize Rocky and Adrian’s struggle, to enlarge and project it into such a big theater. The problems arise in the outer story, as Rocky is randomly selected to fight the world champion, Apollo Creed. (The book, hewing close to the movie, including “Yo, Adrian” and the sides of beef, is credited to Thomas Meehan and Stallone himself.) It’s in this sphere — the whole insane hoopla of an overhyped sporting event — that the designers, especially Zinn, go crazy. To judge from the clichés passing for costumes, Creed and his synchronized-sass entourage, dressed largely in Pimp Purple, have arrived in Philadelphia from a Saturday Night Live sketch about Soul Train.
And then there’s the famous boxing ring, which, in a coup de théâtre twenty minutes before the end, slides forward past the orchestra pit over part of the audience. (The 111 people in the affected seats — center section, rows AA through F — have by this point been moved to bleachers onstage, producing something like the in-the-round orientation of an actual fight.) All the whizbang effects $16 million can buy now come out of the closet, as any residual pretense of sincerity is burned off in the blinding light. It is admittedly, astonishing stagecraft, but also astonishing vulgarity. (Nor can you really understand what’s going on.) It’s bad enough that this Las Vegasized championship fight sequence, complete with anachronistic-for-1975 computer graphics, underlines what was already trashy in the earlier material, especially the portrayal of all the women (except for Adrian) as gum-snapping, vowel-honking floozies. But it also undermines whatever was good. It turns out that the love story was bait for the spectacle instead of the other way around.
That the tone veers so cynically, as the movie’s tone did not, is partly the result of musicalization: Song, and the environment necessary for it, can push theatricality to extremes. What’s latent without music can become blatant with it. But the cynicism also seems to be a deliberate defense against the story itself. Earlier in his career, when he directed shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, I called Alex Timbers the crown prince of easy irony; lately, especially with the Imelda Marcos bio-dancical Here Lies Love, which reopens at the Public next month, I’ve enjoyed watching him use irony more integrally, not as a means of distracting audiences from thin material but of engaging them in something more complicated. Now 35, he says that Rocky interested him as a way of enabling the further expression of his sentimental side. And it’s true that the Adrian-and-Rocky scenes are overtly touching and very well played. Andy Karl, a Broadway vet, sells Rocky’s sensitivity with ease, and is physically astounding. Margo Seibert, in her Broadway debut, makes a lovely match for him, and sings beautifully. It’s the best work I’ve ever seen Timbers do with actors.
But even aside from basic staging snafus — rarely is your eye pointed to the thing it needs to see or the ear to what it needs to hear — it’s disappointing to find Timbers directing the rest with such a heavy hand. Anything not involving the love story is set in bold italics and acted as if from billboards, with giant winks and indications, lest the audience think the musical is unaware of its built-in embarrassments. If that’s your premise, then why do a musical? Sentimental Rocky may be. But it turns out sentimentality is not the antidote to snark. It’s just the flip side.
Rocky is at the Winter Garden Theatre.