Let’s be honest, show tunes and boxing are an odd mix. If you ever happen to encounter a professional fighter pirouetting in the streets while belting a heartfelt ballad, you’d probably ask what he’d been smoking. So, when I attended the first preview of the 1976 movie-adapted musical Rocky I was skeptical, but the audience left cheering. Also, they were fist bumping and gleaming with cheesy 42nd street smiles. “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!” echoed through the Winter Garden Theater when the cast took their final bows. Sylvester Stallone even made a surprise appearance, and the claps transformed into shrieking fan girl screams. To say the least, people enjoyed the choreographed match-up. “It was surprisingly much better than I ever anticipated,” said NYU Senior Gabrielle Williamson.
Rocky the musical is a piece of light-hearted, fairytale motivation that is far from the 1970’s grit of the original film. Lead by the “how is that possible” set design, perfect lighting, and cheap puns, if you’re in search of a feel-good franchise turned into a feel-better big-budgeted musical, Rocky does not disappoint.
The plot is quite simple (in case you live under a rock where classic movies cease to exist): an unknown Southside Philly boxer, Rocky Balboa, is offered the chance of a lifetime to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. His odds are slim, but the hope stays alive as Balboa balances training and a new relationship with his shy girlfriend, Adrian.
Stallone, who wrote the original movie and co-wrote the musical, preserves the unique elements that made the film so initially relatable. Jokes about the boxer’s pet turtles and scenes of him hitting large pink slabs of pig meat remain. In fact, they’re referenced on multiple occasions (you can really only snicker at the same line so many times). Hardcore fans could find themselves LOLing more excessively than the majority of the audience, who’ll only giggle quietly at the gags they “stora-kinda” remember. “Everyone seemed to be laughing at jokes I wasn’t sure were in the movie,” said sophomore Julia Eiahorn. Things could get awkward if you’re like Julia.
It is in the first act where we find ourselves distracted by dull, tedious songs and shirtless men (which I have no objections to). The musical starts out with a literal bang, but struggles to keep our feet tapping in that initial hour-and-a-half. The first melody, “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” is cute, but far from catchy. In addition, there is a certain ongoing ambiance of choppy scenes and unexplored, random characters. Paulie, for example, the brother of Rocky’s love interest Adrian, is supposed to be the drunk and abusive antagonist. Still, this doesn’t become apparent until Act II.
Rocky is played by “easy on the eyes,” slick-haired Andy Karl , whose chiseled chest is as much of a highlight as the cool boxing segments. He sashays across the stage, maintaining Stallone’s bitter accent, but with more distinct pronunciation. He sounds a little like a young Danny DeVito. Perhaps the most standout chap was Terence Archie, who precisely portrays the rival Apollo Creed. Archie captivates his scene with smooth moments of cool flashiness. He’s not afraid to thrust those sexy hips and shake what his mama gave him.
The real excitement, however, doesn’t begin until Act II. After intermission, the curtain opens to the classic training montage of Rocky drinking raw eggs, running in his sweat suit, and climbing to the top of the stairs. Here, the set design is SERIOUSLY INSANSE. 3D projections of a determined Rocky flash over the stage while various men in the same gray, hooded sweat suit dance to “Eye of the Tiger.”
By the final match, the staging dynamics intensify to “holy shit” proportions. The theater becomes an actual athletic stadium where the orchestra seating section is welcomed to assemble behind and around the center boxing ring. A live cameraman then follows sports commentators along with bits and pieces of the fight, as footage is projected on two right and left-hand corner HD screens. In the middle of the theater, cubed stadium video monitors drop down where graphics such as “Make Some Noise!” flash. Presumably, you do make noise.
The next 15 rounds of boxing between Rocky and Apollo could best be described as a real-life arcade video game equipped with slow motion, strobe lights, and “POWS!” The truth is, you’d have to see it for yourself to experience the pure, giddy ecstasy of these last 20 minutes. It’ll have you screaming, “Rocky!” like everybody else. Sorry hipsters, you’ll conform.
Thus, I can only report that by the end you will forget the first act’s mishaps and merely remember chants of Rocky’s emotional and physical victories. You will leave purified of the bad day blues and be tempted to burst into your living room punching the air and humming triumphant tunes (I actually did this). NYU Professor John Barna sums it up: “this will be the highlight of my school year.”