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Stage Door: Rocky, All The Way

03/23/2014 08:33 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2014

Boxing has taken center stage on Broadway: Clifford Odets' extraordinary drama Golden Boy, was revived in 2012, and now movie-turned-musical Rocky, is at the Winter Garden. But the differences between them are acute.

Odet's masterpiece details the story of Joe Bonaparte, a young, gifted violinist who turns to boxing to secure fame and fortune, ultimately corrupted and destroyed by his fateful decision. Golden Boy used boxing as a metaphor for fighting to the top of America's promise -- at the expense of one's soul.

Conversely, Rocky doesn't aspire to social commentary. It is an American fairy tale --the underdog who steps into the ring with champion Apollo Creed (Terence Archie). Creed's ripped body and swagger is contrasted with battered Rocky, a lonely outcast in 1976 Philadelphia, who earns his keep as a collector, beating up people for a seedy loan shark.

If Rocky weren't so sympathetic, we might question, as Odets did, a society that enjoys watching men nearly kill each other.

There is a simple, balladic score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, which focuses on Rocky's tender side, "I ain't no bum," he says. "I'm no loser." Rocky Balboa (an excellent Andy Karl), the Italian Stallion, isn't beefy and bulky, ala Sly Stallone, who created the movie role. He's shy, tender and lithe. And he can sing, mostly to his equally lonely girlfriend Adrian (Margo Seibert). By dumb luck, he gets the chance to take his million to one shot: a match with Creed. Cue the crowds.

Plus, it's the bicentennial year. It's no mistake that Rocky is the fantasy battle of an underdog, down-on-his-luck fighter; expected to be raw meat for Creed, he defies expectations.

But the star here is the techno production, the sound and light design, complete with a Jumbotron and boxing ring; the big fight is staged, thanks to director Alex Timbers, to spectacular effect. The real punch is the video projections from Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina, which show Rocky running under subway tracks, along the Schulykill River or sparring with sides of beef. The visuals are augmented by grey-hooded sweatsuits pounding the streets, till he ascends the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Karl's Rocky isn't overwhelmed by the technology. His pathos commingles with his eventual pride to discover that winning the fight is one thing; winning the girl is everything.

There is another -- equally ferocious battle -- being fought at the Neil Simon in All The Way. But this one is real and vitally important. And the production is hugely compelling.

It addresses the machinations behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in public facilities, housing, the workplace and commerce and the powerful Voting Rights Act. But all efforts were met with intense resistance, particularly in the Deep South.

All The Way pays tribute to the great political strategist and pugilist LBJ, brilliantly portrayed in a tour-de-force performance by Bryan Cranston in one turbulent year: November 1963-November 1964.

Despite his intense efforts, he is met by vehement opposition on all sides. First from Southern Dixiecrats, who scream about government overreach, led by Sen. Russell, (John McMartin), an old-school Georgia politician whose cordiality hides a venomous heart.

And second, by Rev. Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden), who rightly worries that the bill may be gutted, as was similar legislation in 1957. King and his colleagues, in turn, face off with Stokely Carmichael (William Jackson Harper), who favors radical action. Soon, LBJ and King will confront the MFDL (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party), a black group excluded by the Mississippi delegation demanding to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

The politics of the acts passage are fascinating, underscoring just how amoral the process can be. Morality and right may be LBJ's battle cry, but it's not shared by Southern Democrats, whose playbook of obstructionism and charges of socialism, sound like today's Tea Party.

What makes All The Way so hypnotic is the sheer force of Johnson's personality -- he can be charming, cunning or threatening to friends and foes alike. Johnson's "Great Society" was a watershed moment in liberal legislation, passing laws that upheld Medicare, public broadcasting, environmental protection, aid to the arts and both urban/rural development. He was an extraordinary president; Vietnam, his downfall, is several years away.

Playwright Robert Schenkkan has done his homework, expertly giving a cross-section of political undercurrents, alongside the scheming of unctuous J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean). At three hours, All The Way gives a panoramic landscape of the players and issues that influenced the historic civil rights battle -- and Johnson's prescience of political ill winds to come.

Cranston captures the swagger and agony of LBJ. When his shoulders slump or he towers over an opponent, he channels this singular spirit. He is aided by spot-on performances by Dirden, as well as McKean, as well as a versatile first-rate ensemble. Roslyn Ruff's recount of Fannie Lou Hamer's jailing is chilling. Seamlessly directed by Bill Rauch, the events, neatly recreated by Shawn Sagady's projection design, illustrate both the shame and power of Congress.

LBJ was a complicated figure, but Cranston restores him to a century sorely in need of political courage and vision.