Whatever your expectations going into “Rocky,” you come out rocking the technology. No mystery about where the $16.5 million capital investment went in this musical iteration of the 1976 movie that made an iconic hero of Rocky Balboa. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens no doubt took their pittance for scoring the book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone. But the real coin for helmer Alex Timbers’ extravagant production went into the spectacular projections, sound and lighting effects, and into the scenic showpiece — a regulation-size boxing ring that puts the audience ringside for the big fight. Looks like it was worth every penny.
Everybody knows the story of Rocky Balboa (Andy Karl), the never-made-it boxer and thug-for-hire from South Philly who stumbles into an exhibition match with Apollo Creed (Terence Archie), the seemingly invincible world heavyweight champ. As a guy who’s painfully aware of his own limitations, Rocky knows he’s just a human sacrifice for the fight promoters to toss to the bloodthirsty crowd. But heartened by his unexpected romantic success with Adrian (Margo Seibert), the mousey sister of his best friend, Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio), this perpetual underdog suddenly feels he’s got something — and someone — worth fighting for.
“I ain’t no bum,” he says. “I’m no loser.” Flush with newfound self-esteem, he dons his emblematic hooded sweatshirt and goes on to prove himself by undertaking a lonely and punishing training regimen — punching sides of beef at the Shamrock Meat Plant and running under the El tracks, along the polluted Schuylkill River, and up the grand steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — that eventually gets him in shape to take on the champ.
There are two sides to this story, Rocky in love and Rocky in the ring. The show opens as it must, in fight mode, as the overture sounds the stirring call-to-battle trumpet fanfare of “Gonna Fly Now,” the movie theme song written by Bill Conti. Aside from underscoring echoes, that’s pretty much all we get of that undiluted musical root. But the trumpet call serves as introduction to another anthem, “Ain’t Down Yet,” that’s loud and brassy and close enough to the source to blast off the opening fight scene at the 4th Street Fight Club.
A full wall of high-beam lights (Christopher Akerlind is the maestro of the light board) flashes to life and trains its piercing orbs on some sweaty guys pounding each other on a full-scale boxing ring (Steven Hoggett is the choreographic genius who makes this synchronized violence look like dancing) — and we’re off.
Despite that razzle-dazzle opening, the first act is the soft one.
The book, the joint creation of Meehan and Stallone, fires up sympathy for Rocky by focusing on scenes of his lonely life. Staged on self-contained and carefully dressed box sets that trundle on and off the stage like little boxcars, these intimate scenes take place in the grungy one-room apartment that Rocky shares with his two turtles, Cuff and Link; the pet store where Adrian works; and the changing room at Mickey’s (Dakin Matthews) gym, where the poor chump has lost his locker rights.
Flaherty and Ahrens cover a lot of ground in building character with “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” and while a succession of ballads could put you to sleep, they do their job of winning hearts for Rocky and Adrian. The lean and graceful Karl may not match the original image of that bulked-up side of beef who dubbed himself “the Italian Stallion,” but his sensitive perf reveals the tough guy’s tender core. And with Seibert bringing her sweet voice and guileless manner to Adrian, these two misfits are a perfect match. As one lyric would have it: “Your little hand in my mitt / Funny how people can fit.”
But enough with the love stuff — bring on the fight.
In Act Two, Timbers lets the techno-wizards off the leash to play on Christopher Barreca’s industrial-scaled set, which turns into an elaborate configuration of elevated catwalks and bridges and trusses and miscellaneous metal parts that could crush steel beams in their jaws. But the real stunner are the video projections by Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina: a moving panorama of black-and-white city scenes that dwarf the lonely figure of Rocky as he runs his heart out on his pre-dawn training sessions.
You’d think that nothing could top that visual — until Hoggett sends out a dozen anonymous runners in grey sweatsuits to pound those streets alongside our hero. It’s a breathtaking sequence that ends, of course, with Rocky scaling the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and doing his little victory dance.
By the time the big fight comes around, the audience is all warmed up — especially those patrons sitting in the first dozen or so rows of the orchestra who are escorted from their seats and trundled up to the stage and onto bleacher seats to play their collective role as the fight crowd. The fight itself is a brilliant piece of staging, all the more so because it’s also seen in closeup detail on the giant video screens of the Jumbotron. But even before the fight begins, the transformation of the theater into the auditorium setting of a boxing match is itself a spectacular effect, and one better seen than described.
Happily, the actors are not swallowed up by all the technology. As the underdog, Karl’s Rocky makes an exciting but rather modest entrance from a side aisle in the orchestra. As befits the reigning champ, Apollo Creed turns his entrance into an elaborate production, and Terence Archie, who also played the role at the TUI Operettenhaus in Hamburg, has both the physique and the attitude to pull it off.
The fight clocks in at about 20 minutes, but by that time, everyone in the house is so caught up in the spectacle that nobody’s counting.