How can you not burst into laughter when Rocky optimistically sings about how, despite all his troubles, “my nose ain’t broken”? Seriously, that’s the lyric.
Based on the 1976 Sylvester Stallone film about Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa, expectations for this new musical have been very high. It premiered last year in Germany, where it was known as “Rocky: Das Musical.” The young and innovative Alex Timbers (“Here Lies Love,” “Peter and the Starcatcher”) is directing.
The book of the musical, which sticks closely to the original screenplay, has been co-written by Stallone and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan (“The Producers”). The score combines new material by the acclaimed team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime”) with the theme music of the film and the “Eye of the Tiger” anthem from the “Rocky” sequels.
On film, its a slow-moving, delicate plot about two damaged loners from working-class backgrounds, benefiting from the quiet intimacy of the camera. Here, the story is overwhelmed by towering walls, shifting platforms, multimedia screens and heavy lighting.
The flow is also disrupted by all the new ballads, which attempt to psychologically probe Rocky and his girlfriend Adrian but end up being poorly integrated, musically weak and unintentionally ridiculous. Rocky, being an inarticulate individual, was not meant to burst into song. Hokey one-liners are also loaded into the script.
The highlight of the musical is undoubtedly the championship match between Rocky and Apollo Creed. To mark the event, audience members in the front rows are moved to onstage bleachers while a regulation-sized boxing ring is shifted forward and on top of their seats. Both the stagecraft and the fight choreography of this finale are stunning. Best of all, it uses musical underscoring instead of song.
Other iconic moments from the film, like Rocky training in the meat freezer and running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are painstakingly recreated, as if pandering to the fans.
While Andy Karl deserves credit for enduring so much physically as Rocky, he comes off as too clean cut to be credible in the role. As Adrian, Margo Seibert is stymied by her character being so undeveloped and makes little impression.
In effect, “Rocky” is the new “Spider-Man,” a similarly flashy and misconceived spectacle-musical that exists mainly to showcase an elaborate fight sequence as its finale.