The reviews are in for Broadway’s new adaptation of Rocky, and they mostly agree on the same things:
1) The performances are excellent, especially those by the three leads– the charismatic Andy Karl, the darling Margo Siebert, and the grandiose Terrence Archie.
2) The book, music, and lyrics are repetitious, basic, and overall weak throughout the show. And the stand-out numbers all borrow music from the original film.
3) BUT OMG THAT STAGE THOUGH
Right at that climactic final fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed, a team of frantic ushers escort the audience members in the first six-ish aisles of center orchestra to ‘golden circle’ seating on stage, after which a large boxing ring edges out into the orchestra so that the final scene occurs right in the middle of the theater. At the same time, a makeshift Jumbotron lowers from the ceiling, which was pretty flipping impressive. And the stage proper becomes a busy news studio with freakishly bright stagelights whose sole purpose seemed to be to temporarily blind me every few minutes. Rocky and Apollo both enter through the main house doors, down the aisles of the theater, and into the ring, which is literally surrounded by people on all four sides. Folks on orchestra left and right must stand in order to see the boxing match, which was probably a bother, but it’s all part of the transformation of the winter garden theater into a sports arena. It’s the most ambitious and exciting technical theater innovation since (and honestly way cooler than) Les Miz’s rotating stage or Phantom’s falling chandelier.
This isn’t the only impressive use of technical theater in the show. Large industrial panels swerve seamlessly and soundlessly in the background to usher in scene changes, including one where a rack of meat-locker cow corpses drop unexpectedly on stage. Adrian’s pet shop is a wonderful treat to see (are there really fish in those tanks?) and even more exciting to watch is the rooms of her house unfold onstage as if on a conveyor belt. This is what happens when you combine a huge production budget with a visionary director like Alex Timbers, who at the age of 35 has already established a repertoire of shows (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher) displaying his successfully experimental and passionately playful voice in theater.
And as in all good art, the structure of a narrative should always connect to its content. In less highbrow terms, a director’s choices should reflect something about the story. And what is Rocky’s story about if not a man of the people, an underdog who represents the many of us who learn to roll with the punches and withstand defeat. It’s about as democratic a story as you can find.
But, in case you haven’t noticed, Broadway isn’t exactly the epitome of democracy. First of all, have you seen the price of tickets lately? You can your own knock-off heavyweight championship belt for that kind of money. Also, seating. The more money you cough up, the better your view. You can pretty much tell a person’s expendable income from where they’re sitting. People… this ain’t the Ancient Athenian theatron we’ve all come to know and love (just me? okay…), the type of space that emphasizes equality and community. Instead, the typical Broadway theater emphasizes stratification and separation. A much more democratic space would be the sports arena or stadium. Sure, you’ve got the nosebleed seats and the Hollywood celebs sitting courtside at the Lakers game, but there’s a combination of all-around seating, giant screens with close-ups of the game, and a pure crowd energy that really makes for a ‘no bad seat in the house’ kind of feeling.
Rocky’s final scene manages to combine all of these elements into a wonderfully new democratic space right in the middle of the theater. There’s new seating on all sides. There are jumbotrons and strobe lights and The Final Countdown playing in the background. And there’s suddenly this new crowd community, bringing us all together in the thrill, the spectacle of it all. And there’s no better reason for all this than to root for Rocky, the everyman against all odds.