Rocky the musical goes the distance on Broadway

“Why do you fight?” Adrian asks Rocky in the movie that’s come to define Philadelphia.

“Cause I can’t sing or dance,” says Rocky.

Why then, is he in a Broadway musical?

Fans of the film and musicals alike might shudder at the thought of this coarse hero attempting to grace the stage, and there’s good reason to be skeptical.  He’s an unlikely hero and the ultimate underdog. But somehow, Rocky the musical does go the distance. The beloved fable of an unknown who gets a shot at the title opened on Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre Thursday night in what is sure to be a long and successful run.

In a soaring spectacle that has all the excitement of a prizefight, this heavyweight production wins over audiences by staying true to the source material, revealing its rich characters through song, and scenery that sets a new bar for stagecraft.

When he’s not singing, Andy Karl (Jersey Boys, Legally Blonde) sounds a lot like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. And when he dons that black fedora and leather jacket, he looks the part too. In “My Nose Ain’t Broken” we get a full view of Rocky’s lot in life-- from his inventory of injuries to his dirt apartment— as well as a sense of his plucky character. His oafish charm further endears him to audiences during his ice skating date with Adrian: a scene in which we get our most earnest attempt at a Philly accent when the couple is told the rink’s “clowsed for the oliday.”

“Fight from the Heart” is a serviceable offering from the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and “Keep on Standing” has the feel of a “Don’t Stop Believing” or a “Livin on a Prayer.” The best vocal performances belong to Margo Seibert, whose passionate “Raining” and “I’m Done” help the timid Adrian burst from her shell with more personality than she had on screen.

Those more interested in stick and move than show tunes will not be disappointed in the book by Thomas Meehan and Stallone. A theater’s stage might not lend itself to a training montage, but under the creative direction of Alex Timbers and the brilliant scenic design by Christopher Barreca, Rocky powers through exciting training montages with an ever-changing set, some local video footage, and of course, a generous helping of raw eggs.

Both Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” score and Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger” are utilized, as are a dozen extra Rockys in gray sweats, throughout the two training montages that eventually lead Rocky to the top of the steps, this time with a room full of theater-goers cheering him on.

If it’s easy to root for Rocky, it’s not out of any disdain for his opponent. Terence Archie is a delight as the master of disaster. His Apollo Creed has a bit more Magic Johnson Showtime than the Julius Erving-type cool that Carl Weathers brought to the character.  The ultimate showman, Creed remains stylish and eloquent, and with a physique as chiseled as it was 38 years ago. In a preview of the fancy footwork he brings to the ring, the champ dazzles in the 70’s funk performance of “Patriotic.”

The play is firmly rooted in 1975 Philadelphia. There are nods to the local media and costumes that celebrate disco chic. When fight night finally arrives, the Winter Garden Theatre is transformed into the Spectrum, complete with banners from recent Flyers glory.

The story’s humor, understated in the film, takes on a new life and the old jokes land as if told for the first time. It also goes for some cheap laughs with a Matrix move in which Rocky dodges a slow motion punch, stops to examine the floating fist, and retaliates at full speed. This bit could be axed in favor of one of a few poignant moments from the movie’s fight scene that are missing here.

Song and dance numbers give way to a 15-minute finale fight (choreographed by Steven Hoggett), which is after all, the main event. There’s not much more plot or character development once the fighters enter the ring, but by this point viewers are so caught up in the lights, the TV cameras, and the non-stop action going on around them that it’s easy to forget you’re watching the musical adaptation of a movie. It feels like you’re at an actual fight.

It helps that Karl and Archie are making contact and hitting each other. As far as scripted fights go, it’s more believable than WWE. The performance pulls out all the stops—and the ring itself—to engage the audience. Don’t be surprised to find yourself on your feet, either to cheer the Italian Stallion or to relocate to a ringside view.

The script is not Shakespeare. The songs are not Rodgers and Hammerstein. But the set! The set is an all-timer that brings new possibilities to our concept of theater. I won’t spoil all of the surprises, but prepare to be wowed.

This bold production takes a lot of risks, and while there are a few swings and misses, it lands most of its blows with force. The song “Southside Celebrity” is tough for any Philadelphian to enjoy, and will need to be rewritten if (when) the show makes it to Philly. The title bout could accomplish a more palpable climax by testing Rocky’s mettle with a knockdown. But we can forgive a few bumps and bruises on this inspired challenger fighting way outside his comfort zone.

In the script, promoter Miles Jergens tells spectators they’ve had the privilege of witnessing “the greatest exhibition of guts and stamina in the history of the ring.” Those who view the play will witness a similar feat: a performance that might just be the greatest exhibition of guts and stamina in the history of theater.