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Rocky – Winter Garden Theatre, New York

Writers: Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone

Music: Stephen Flaherty

Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens

Director: Alex Timbers

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

In the blue corner we have musicals, traditionally romantic, emotional and more than a little bit camp; in the red corner there is boxing, traditionally brutish, blood-spattered and very macho. A mismatch for sure, but the fact that this show’s two key elements never feel as if they belong together is just the start of its problems.

What audiences could the producers have been aiming for? Perhaps they saw great cross promotional opportunities with a lover of musicals bringing along a sports fan or vice versa. If so, the likely outcome would be each of them screaming to the other at the interval “what the hell did you drag me to this for?”. The 1977 film Rocky was a huge success, spawning five sequels (those less charitable might label them re-makes) and now this. Sylvester Stallone and his collaborators sure know how to stretch out a franchise.

The slight story involves Rock Balboa (Adrian Aguilar at this performance), a 29 year old down and out Philadelphia boxer who, by unlikely chance, gets a shot at the World Heavyweight Title, held by Apollo Creed (Terence Archie). At the same time, he is stumblingly embarking on a relationship with Adrian (Margo Seibert), a shy girl from the local pet shop. It is classic triumph of the undergo stuff of the sort that fuels the American dream.

Stephen Flaherty’s score incorporates the most famous theme from the films and also imports Eye of the Tiger to provide the show with by far its best song and dance routine. Otherwise, the melodies are pleasant but unmemorable, not helped by Lynn Ahrens’ frequently bland lyrics. The earliest sign that Rocky could be on a rocky road comes when our eponymous hero begins with My Nose Ain’t Broken. The songs get better but not by much.

A talented company of actors/singers do their best, but the script never allows them to develop their characters beyond replications of the portrayals seen in the films. The main purpose of transferring a piece to theatre from another medium should be to add a further dimension that only the live experience can bring. However, in this case, all that is achieved during at least 80% of the show is making everything smaller. The use of filmed segments projected onto huge screens, increasing as the show progresses, can be seen as an admission of defeat by the creators, effectively saying that this always worked better as a film and should have stayed as one.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As the climactic fight draws near, a boxing ring appears on stage and audience members sitting in the front half dozen or so rows are ushered to take their places in tiered seating behind it. The ring then thrusts forward into the auditorium, coming to rest above the vacated seats, and the spectacle of the fight commences amid blinding lights and a cacophony of noise. Brilliantly choreographed (as a simulated fight, definitely not a dance), we are treated to a dazzling display that could probably only be bettered by having a ringside seat for real boxing. There is even tension for those of us who cannot remember whether the show is based upon a film in which Rocky wins or loses.

In truth, this is a throwback to the 1980’s when all big musicals seemed to need expensive stunts – a chandelier falling, a helicopter landing, etc – but they tended to be better shows than this one. As for the outcome of the bout between musicals and boxing, the last round ensures a win for boxing by an emphatic knockout. Alas, this is not a good result for musical theatre.

Currently booking to 23rd November

Writers: Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone Music: Stephen Flaherty Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens Director: Alex Timbers Reviewer: Stephen Bates In the blue corner we have musicals, traditionally romantic, emotional and more than a little bit camp; in the red corner there is boxing, traditionally brutish, blood-spattered and very macho. A mismatch for sure, but the fact that this show’s two key elements never feel as if they belong together is just the start of its problems. What audiences could the producers have been aiming for? Perhaps they saw great cross promotional opportunities with a lover of musicals bringing along a sports…

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