Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Rocky -- Yo, Broadway
If you liked “Rocky” the movie you'll like Rocky the musical. Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and starred in the former, has teamed with veteran Broadway writer Thomas Meehan to pen the book and recreate the 1976 Academy Award-winning hit in as close an imitation as you can get. Luckily I liked both, and seemed to be in good company with the audience at the Winter Garden Theatre whose enthusiasm poured out from beginning to end.
The familiar elements are present at the start. Rocky (Andy Karl) shares his dumpy apartment in south Philadelphia with Cuff and Link -- "Yo, turtles." At 29, he's a small-time boxer who makes his living collecting debts for a loan shark. Sent to get $200 from the butcher or break this thumbs, Rocky says he'll rough him up but won't break any bones. He’s a nice guy, going nowhere fast.
This gentle lug has another soft spot, Adrian (Margo Seibert), a mousy salesclerk in a pet shop who lives with her nasty brother, Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Even if you haven't seen the movies you know these two outwardly seeming losers are going to end up together. While Karl more or less channels Stallone in his performance, which is fine, Seibert is an extrovert compared to Talia Shire's Adrian. The intimacy of the camera captured a Shire who looked terrified anytime Rocky was near and shrunk herself in as much as possible. She was so lovable, and won a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her performance. Those small gestures and facial expressions wouldn’t work onstage, so Seibert creates an Adrian who is a bit more in touch with with world, even as she leads a spinster existence with Paulie.
What I kept waiting for from the movie and was disappointed not to hear was the questions Rocky's friends used to ask him and his constant answer -- Are you going out with Paulie's sister? She's retarded, isn't she? And Stallone's Rocky always mumbled in the same tone each time, "No, she's not retarded. She's just shy."
I kept listening for that but it never came. But that was about the only thing missing that I noticed. Paulie’s brutality with Adrian’s Thanksgiving turkey is there, as is the funny scene when Adrian first visits Rocky’s apartment and asks if he has a phone. He says no, and asks her why she wants one. She says she’d like to tell Paulie where she is. I waited with happy anticipation for Rocky to walk across the room, open the window and shout out, Hey, Paulie, your sister’s with me. You don’t have to worry.
It’s those little moments that made the movie so sweet. I had been saying at intermission that I was waiting for the raw eggs and after the curtain rose on Act Two I knew I wasn't alone. We see Rocky's dark bedroom and I waited for the clock radio to go off at 4 a.m., announcing how cold it is. Rocky stumbles out of bed to the refrigerator, pulls out the eggs, which can't really be seen in the dark but we all knew what they were. At the sound of the first one being cracked into a bowl, the audience applauded. When Rocky begins to swallow, the audience applauded and cheered. We know our "Rocky."
Same reaction when the beginning of the long flight of steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art appears. Yes, we know this story.
So, OK, let's get to the obvious difference between the movie and the Broadway show -- the music, which I'm sorry to say is disappointing. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) are one of my favorite contemporary songwriting teams. After I saw Ragtime originally, with their powerful songs, I went out the next morning and bought the cast recording. Those songs conveyed so many emotions -- pain, anger, love, hope -- but these sounded more or less alike. And as for that energetic movie music that finally propels Rocky up that flight of steps, with the sun rising over Philly in the background (what a fabulous scene), it would be next to impossible for any composer to compete with Bill Conti's, which is one of the most memorable scores in movie history. It's symphonic and soaring, while Flaherty's is pulsing rock that is loud rather than memorable. In fact, none of the music was with me after I left the theatre. I walked home with Conti's score playing in my head, so closely is that music linked with the mere mention of the word Rocky.
Luckily the story carries the evening. Director Alex Timbers does a nifty job of creating the fight scene, the play’s climax, in which Rocky, chosen to represent the American Everyman, is pitted against the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Terence Archie), in a bicentennial exhibition match. Audience members in the first half dozen or so rows move to seats at the back of the stage and the front portion is then thrust out into the theatre, so the boxing ring is surrounded by spectators. The up-close feeling is enhanced by two large TV screens portraying the fight, nicely choreographed by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine.
The story works because we love to cheer for the little guy, especially when he’s as likable as Rocky. The story behind the film is a “Rocky” tale of its own. Stallone was an unknown actor trying to sell his screenplay (written in three days) to Hollywood studios, with the insistence that he star in the movie He had some nibbles on the script, but all the movie bigwigs wanted to hire a major name for the lead. They even offered Stallone good money, which would have led many — most — starving actors to cave, but Stallone said he didn’t have any money anyway so he was used to that. He held out until he was offered just a little over $1 million, small potatoes. Shot in 28 days, the movie went on to earn $225 million in global receipts and received three Oscars, including the one for Best Picture. It made Stallone a major Hollywood star and spawned five sequels. And now that little “Rocky” story is up for yet another round. Yo, Rocky.