After what could be reduced to a dull montage of couch potato-ing, what movie fan hasn’t succumbed to unabashed corniness and cheered for Rocky Balboa, that consummate underdog, that poet of the heart and body if not the brain? Unabashedly rah-rah, it isn’t surprising that the Rocky series, in contrast to other cash-in franchises, has retained a not-insignificant amount of cultural currency, cited whenever training montages or the end of the Cold War come up. But, for a moment, set aside the iconography: the museum steps, sides of beef and raw eggs, “Eye of the Tiger,” and the rest. Its reputation long diluted by inferior sequels and the unfulfilled potential of Sylvester Stallone’s subsequent career, it’s easy to forget that the original film is a masterpiece. Now here’s Rocky: The Musical to remind us.
At first glance, it’s an unlikely choice for Broadway adaptation, but the show (at the Winter Garden Theatre in an open run) justifies its existence early on with “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” underlining its hero’s dignity amid squalor (rendering the opening number, “He Ain’t Down Yet,” redundant). The story’s power comes from how it plays up the nobility of its hero rather than the reprobation of his opponents. Balboa is among the most lovable of heroes, very tough but very shy, describing his love life as, “I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts” or, “I’ve got gaps, she’s got gaps, together we fill gaps.”
Like a lot of musical adaptations, Rocky is strongest when it’s singing and dancing, staking out its own ground rather than mimicking its source. It’s a testament to Stallone that the show’s best lines—and most others—are lifted wholesale from his screenplay while the additions to the book (credited to Stallone and Hairspray’s Thomas Meehan) are largely groaners, such as Rocky’s scoff initially at the idea that he should pound raw meat. Because the source material is so strong, these are more distracting than damaging, an observation that extends to the performances. As the Italian Stallion, Andy Karl adopts Stallone’s mannerisms and accent (sometime shakily); still, he so embodies Balboa’s essence, and the performance is such a physical feat, that it’s impossible to consider it anything other than a triumph. Terence Archie is a lot of fun as Apollo Creed, giving a performance as much indebted to Superfly as Carl Weathers.
Rocky was shepherded to stage by Alex Timbers, the maestro behind the visionary Peter and the Starcatcher and Here Lies Love. He mostly keeps his stylistic impulses in check—though the show’s unfailing engaging and smooth—until the finale, when the boxing rink is pulled out over the audience and the theater essentially becomes a 360 degree sports arena. It’s a coup that deserves to become legend, akin to Phantom’s falling chandelier. It’s incredibly effective and, of course, audiences have a Pavlovian response to “Gonna Fly Now.” There are times when the show lays it on a bit thick, or when it coasts on the goodwill of its source, but any complaints fall away in the face of its exhilarating finale and overall sincerity. The show may have its gaps, and while the movie doesn’t, together they fill them.