Here’s the thing: as someone who sees somewhere between 20 and 30 theatrical productions a year, I’ve become jaded and unimpressed with most of the live theatre I see. Rarely am I overwhelmed with stagecraft or surprised by technical feats, and often I’m left feeling fairly numb after a Broadway show. That was my expectation for Rocky, yet another film-to-stage adaptation — this time of a film I’ve never even seen. Perhaps my low expectations allowed me to go into the show without the hope of being blown away. Whatever it was, I’m not only willing to report that I was head over heels for Rocky; I’m can also say it was the most phenomenal Broadway production I’ve ever seen.
The star of the show is neither Andy Karl, who delivers a terrific performance that only occasionally feels like a Sylvester Stallone impersonation, nor Margo Seibert, who brings a quiet charm to the role of Rocky’s love interest, Adrian. The most impressive work comes from director Alex Timbers, who at the age of 35 is somewhat of a New York theatre wunderkind (he’s already nabbed two Tony nominations for his direction of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher). Rocky is Timbers’ baby, and he manages to do what many directors fail to do: distract the audience from sluggish, by-the-books material with some of the most impressive and expansive staging to hit Broadway. It’s a standard practice, of course, popularized by the British invasion of Broadway spectacles in the ’80s like Cats (which ran at the Winter Garden, which now houses Rocky, for 18 years) and The Phantom of the Opera, and evident even in last season’s smash-hit revival of Pippin, in which a beloved, yet emotionally slight, musical was supplemented with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics.
From the show’s opening, Timbers’ masterwork is evident. Towering over the audience and the actors are massive moving sets: punching bags swing to and fro, as do the frozen, bloodied slabs of beef; Adrian’s pet store is illuminated from within by a wall of aquariums; massive screens replicate the visual components of an actual boxing match; projections allow for Rocky to run through Philadelphia without leaving the confines of the stage. So rarely is a musical based on a film so impressively cinematic, but Rocky is nearly a stage replica of its source material (aided by a book co-written by Stallone).
And then there’s the final, exhilarating 20-minute sequence in which Rocky goes head-to-head with reigning heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (played with brilliant swagger by Terence Archie). The theatre’s ushers direct the patrons in the first ten rows of the orchestra onto the stage, and the boxing ring slides from the proscenium into the orchestra pit as a massive monitor system lowers from the ceiling to replicate a boxing arena. As three women in one of American theatre’s greatest musicals sing, you gotta have a gimmick. But Timbers’ staging — suddenly shifting the production into the round and immersing the audience into the show — is hardly a gimmick: it is a masterpiece the likes of which the New York stage has never seen. As my date that night commented during the fight sequence, as Rocky and Apollo creed smashed into each other mere feet above our heads, “This sure beats a chandelier falling from the ceiling!” Never have I experienced the near-pandemonium of Rocky‘s final sequence, and never have I felt the complete and utter joy emanating from the audience.
Rocky is far from perfect; its limitations lie in its predictable underdog-makes-good plot and Lynn Ahrens’ rather insipid lyrics. (It’s worth noting that, beyond Adrian’s torch song about Rocky, the most memorable song is “Eye of the Tiger,” recorded by Survivor for Rocky III.) But like the two aforementioned Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacles, which won over audiences and critics alike with the impressive, groundbreaking production values that naturally diverted their attention from the ridiculous songs and stories, Rocky is a blast and a brilliant example of what musical theatre can accomplish at the hands of a forward-thinking director.