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Aisle View: Rock 'em Sock 'em

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Taking a blockbuster audience-pleasing motion picture phenomenon, adding songs, and transforming the thing into a big, spectacular Broadway musical capable of pulling in every rabid or incidental fan of said movie who passes through the City of New York can be a recipe for success. Or failure, as the purveyors of the recent Spider-Man learned when they drowned in a sea of Spiderman-red ink.

Now we have yet another extravaganza in which the title alone tells you just about everything you need to know: Rocky. (Refreshingly, they refrain from calling it "Rocky The Musical.") If you wanna see Sylvester Stallone's iconic pugilist battling Apollo Creed live on stage, in an arena where you can viscerally absorb the blows and pretty much smell the sweat, the Winter Garden is the place to be. (The Winter Garden building was converted, 103 years ago, from William K. Vanderbilt's American Horse Exchange.) Expect no surprises. But then, fans who know the film frame-by-frame do not need or desire surprises. You can tell this by the roars of recognition that greet assorted lines or "business" from the movie.

It turns out that Rocky is better than the aforementioned Spider-Man, by several notches in the proverbial heavyweight belt. The Cinderella story, such as it is, is durable; and the sure-to-be-much-talked-about staging of the climactic boxing match more or less delivers the punch of excitement required. This despite score, libretto, staging and choreography that are unlikely to merit awards even in this thus-far lazy season for new Broadway musicals.

Mr. Stallone, who wrote the screenplay and created the role of the iconic "Italian Stallion" in the 1976 Best Picture-winner and five sequels, is back on the ropes as co-librettist (with Thomas Meehan of Annie and The Producers) and co-lead producer. Fortunately, though, he has seen fit to hang up his trunks. Andy Karl, who theatergoers will remember from The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Legally Blonde, is today's Stallone. He is incredibly hard-working and just about has his brains knocked out in the title role; one is impressed by his durability more than his singing and acting, maybe, but that is a perquisite for this particular role.

Otherwise, the leading players aren't given much to work with. Margo Seibert, who played the title role in last fall's intriguing-but-overlooked downtown musical Tamar of the River and here makes her Broadway debut, gives the evening's most appealing performance as Adrian. The character is drawn as a drab wallflower who is suddenly and unapologetically transformed--offstage, when she stops at a dress shop--into a wise and attractive leading lady. Still, the musical is at its best (non-pugilistically speaking) when Seibert is singing.

Rocky's nemesis Apollo Creed is played by Terence Archie, who fights the role well. His character is a walking racial stereotype, bordering on the offensive; the authors also give him three "girls" for backup in musical numbers that might raise a snicker or two. Dakin Matthews plays crusty trainer Mickey, the role which put oldtimer Burgess Meredith back on the showbiz map in 1976. Here, Matthews isn't given much to do and he is saddled with one of those creaky how-it-was-back-in-the-old-days songs.

Songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who are known for creative and intriguingly crafted musicals such as Ragtime and Once on This Island, have weighed in with disappointingly flavorless wares. One gets the impression that they were glad to get the job--every good Broadway songwriter deserves at least one smash hit musical, to put them in permanent royalty heaven--but wound up simply writing what the employers wanted. It is mighty difficult to write intelligently theatrical songs for barely literate characters, which might be part of the problem. And which might be why Ms. Seibert's songs come off better than the rest.

The book is not helpful, but what more can the librettists do than meanderingly get us to the culminating nine-minute boxing match? (Mr. Meehan, typically, throws in jokes along the way.) Director Alex Timbers (Here Lies Love) keeps things moving, literally, while the choreography of Steven Hoggett (Once) and Kelly Devine is underwhelming. The training montages, presumably by Hoggett, are far more effective--which might be why the second act seems infinitely more engaging than the first. But still, all the audience can do is wait until Rocky gets in the ring.

Said ring is something of a marvel, the highlight of Christopher Barreca's massive scenery. As the fight approaches, patrons in the first ten rows center--which they are calling the "Golden Circle"--are herded to onstage bleachers. A clutch of Local One stagehands scurry into the house with stage braces and other paraphernalia to support the ring, which then rolls out over the prime orchestra seats. (The Winter Garden's mezzanine is wide but not especially deep--it's an old horse barn, remember?--making this perhaps the only Broadway venue with sight lines that would accommodate the production.) This allows them to stage a rock 'em sock 'em battle, right down front.

Karl and Archie land their punches, all right, although the match is sculpted, edited, time-compressed and slo-moed. It is, all told, a crowd-pleasing rouser. (Broadway saw more artful fighting action last season in Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Golden Boy, but Rocky is pitched to a decidedly different market.) Rocky's title bout puts the show over the top, entertainment-wise. This might not be enough to please the dedicated theatre crowd, but no matter; if diehard Rocky fans leave the show enraptured, word-of-mouth and repeat visits could provide the Winter Garden with yet another long-running superhit.