I've seen a lot of boxing puns in the reviews of the new Broadway musical Rocky, based on the 1976 film of the same name. Rocky is a "contender," some contend. Others say Rocky "goes the distance" or that the show is an "uncontested winner."
Oh, I beg to contest. If I may also borrow from pugilistic parlance, Rocky has a glass jaw. Rocky should throw in the towel. Rocky loses by technical knockout.
The last of these is perhaps particularly appropriate, because among the many, many, many things wrong with Rocky is the grim, pointlessly complicated scenic design by Christopher Barreca. Each scene change seems to feature an oppressive series of death-gray walls and monolithic platforms that threaten to obliterate all who cross their path. The suffocating production design sets a tone for the rest of the show: slow, lumbering, and colorless.
Before I saw Rocky, I kept hearing from people that the last twenty minutes were the best part. Yeah, sorry. Even the last twenty minutes, which of course feature the climactic fight scene, didn't pack a punch. As you may have heard, the boxing ring rolls out over the first twelve rows of the orchestra, and the folks in those seats are relocated to bleachers on the stage, creating a sort of in-the-round experience. Whatever. Along the way, we're subjected to lame dialogue to cover the seemingly endless set change, complete with bored stagehands and surly ushers, just in case you weren't already removed from the drama. I'd call it a cheap gimmick, but I would imagine that such an effect was anything but cheap. It also wasn't quality musical theater.
But that, of course, can be said of the rest of Rocky as well. Physical production aside, Rocky the musical is a by-the-numbers pander-fest, and unimaginative retread of the the movie, and yet utterly lacking in the original's emotional engagement. It seems as though director Alex Timbers and the creative staff were handed a checklist by producer/librettist Sylvester Stallone, and there wasn't much they could all do except comply. The original Rocky theme featured prominently throughout the show in the orchestrations? Check. Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and raising his fists in the air? Check. Training montage to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger"? Check. The turtles, the raw eggs, the plaintive cry of "Adrian"? Check, check, check. Pander, pander, pander.
For me, the really heartbreaking thing is that Rocky has (only temporarily, I hope) besmirched the names of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyrcist Lynn Ahrens. I'm going to have to assume that these marvelous, talented people were hamstrung by the dictates of producer Sly Stallone. How else to explain the utter lack of inspiration? Not a single one of these songs makes any kind of impression, and they certainly don't add much to the drama. The song motivations here are lame at best, risible at worst. Rocky gets a painful "I Want" song called "My Nose Ain't Broken," which is bad enough, only to be followed by a rather ridiculous reprise, which was apparently intended for Rocky to communicate something meaningful to Adrian, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what.
In defense of Flaherty and Ahrens, I have to say that they were probably a bad fit for the material from the beginning. I often tout Flaherty and Ahrens to my students as the masters of the opening number, creating extended musical sequences that welcome the viewer into the world of the show. Think of the opening numbers to Ragtime, My Favorite Year, Once on This Island, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, etc. All masterful. What we get at the beginning of Rocky is a tuneless series of interjections from random characters, no atmosphere, no nuance, and no apparent melody. The score never recovers.
Even worse is the plodding, pedestrian book by Stallone and Thomas Meehan, which features a plot with no sense of build. That's a major liability in a show that's all about the final scene. The story simply meanders from one event to the next, without much development or resolution. For instance, Adrian's brother Paulie gets drunk on Christmas, busts in on Rocky and Adrian, and destroys their Christmas tree with a baseball bat. This prompts Adrian to sing a song about wanting to be free of her brother's oppression, none of which we have borne witness to. All we've really seen of Paulie is how he wanted to set up Rocky and Adrian in the first place, and the fact that he wants to profit from Rocky's fame. We never see any abusive behavior, nor do we discover why Paulie would be resentful of Rocky and Adrian. And the next time we see Paulie, all is forgiven and forgotten.
Stallone's characters, so distinct and iconic in the 1976 movie, are rendered here with almost no depth. Why does Rocky feel like such a loser? Why is Adrian so resistant to Rocky's advances? Why does Apollo Creed even consent to fight Rocky in the first place? We never find out. Along the way, we're subjected to the hoariest of attempts at humor, most of which landed with a thud the night I saw the show. One female character says, of Adrian, "Say, what got into her?" Another replies, "Rocky Balboa." One of the same female characters later tells another, while they're in Adrian's pet shop, "You need a parakeet like these fish need a bicycle." This quip is a paraphrase of a quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem (although she denies authorship), but the point is, it isn't original, and in the context of the show, it just isn't funny.
On the plus side, it was great to see the inside of the Winter Garden Theater again. I will say this about Rocky: he did us all a favor by forcing Mamma Mia to relocate to the Broadhurst. A few years back, I reluctantly revisited Mamma Mia for the sole purpose of crossing the Winter Garden off my list of Broadway theaters in which I had seen shows. It was the only theater I had never been in at that time. I'm sort of pissed that I had to sit through Mamma Mia again for nothing. But based on Rocky's ticket sales, I get the sense that we're all going to have a chance to see the inside of the Winter Garden again rather soon.