Rocky Balboa, the Italian stallion and well-known underdog, has gone nose to nose with some pretty outsized obstacles in his decades (1976-2006) — "master of disaster" Carl Weathers, Mr. T., Dolph Lundgren and Antonio Tarver, to say nothing of retirement, bankruptcy and old age — and now he's squaring off against The Real heavyweights — theatre critics in all their assorted sizes, shapes and sensibilities.
The Rocky that arrived March 13 at the Winter Garden is, in case you're still counting, No. 7 in the series — a $16.5 million musical version of the first chapter, a scruffy little boxing movie which was brought in, for a measly million, in 28 days.
Sylvester Stallone wrote his own ticket to stardom — a small-time southpaw fighter from the South Side of Philly who is tapped for a shot at the World Championship by the current title-holder, Apollo Creed, who, in a moment of patriotic largess, decides to mark America's Bicentennial by giving The Little Man a chance at his title. Said another way, it is a David and Goliath yarn, sprinkled with old-fashioned Capra corn.
This was eminently playable, of course, but screenwriter Stallone insisted no one would play it but him, and eventually the Hollywood kingpins kowtowed. The result won three Oscars, including the one for Best Picture of 1976. All Stallone got out of it was a couple of nominations for acting and screenwriting, and — oh, yes — a career.
What Rocky Balboa was really fighting for was self-respect — an easily understood human need. The pounding and pulverizing it takes for him to get it is a visceral, emotional, identifiable experience for audiences. He has gone five other rounds of film with this, and the series has earned $1,126,271.447 and a world of respect.
The question becomes: Can that singularly cinematic experience be approximated on stage? Considerable theatrical acumen and art have been marshaled for this task by director Alex Timbers, movement specialist Steven Hoggett and choreographer Kelly Devine to extend the conventional boundaries of theatre. Although opinions will vary, it's hard to get an argument from the primal force of their last 20 minutes.
The theatre's Golden Circle — the first eight rows, AA-F, in the center section — are replaced by the boxing ring Rocky has been using on stage, and the patrons in those seats are escorted to seats on stage to watch The Big Fight from that vantage point.
Creed and Balboa then have it out in an epic battle, which accelerates when the champ is knocked to the canvass for the first time in his career by the punk fighter that he picked. As staged rather brilliantly by Hoggett, it's a realistic battle, betrayed only by the overhanging Busby Berkeley shots that show swings that clearly miss their mark.
Stallone surrounded himself smartly with Oscar-nominated work from people in Rocky's camp — his manager Mickey, his wallflower girlfriend Adrian and her loutish brother, Paulie. Dakin Matthews, Margo Seibert and Danny Mastrogiorgio play the roles originated onscreen by Burgess Meredith, Talia Shire and Burt Young. In the ring, of course, are Andy Karl and Terence Archie as the musical's Rocky and Apollo.
After the show, another ring awaited Stallone smack dab in the Roseland Ballroom. Not a few of the first-nighters made the connection this would probably be the last opening-night party to given at Roseland, as it will be shuttered this spring. But at least it was going out in a bustle of old-fashioned theatrical glory and pandemonium. Stallone, who arrived at the theatre with three daughters and Jennifer Flavin, moved solo about the theatre and party, pausing to do only a token amount of press stops.
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