NEW YORK — With the electrifying climax they’ve come up with for the new musical version of “Rocky,” director Alex Timbers and his creative team reveal themselves to be true lords of the ring.
It gives away nothing to describe the effect, because being in the Winter Garden Theatre, where “Rocky” had its official Broadway opening Thursday night, is the only way to appreciate completely its athletic panache and technical artistry. In the run-up to the bout that everyone remembers from the 1976 movie, between Rocky Balboa (here, in the guise of buff Andy Karl) and Apollo Creed (the even buffer Terence Archie), patrons in the first eight rows are asked to give up their seats and move onto bleachers that have materialized onstage.
As they are guided to their new perches, a boxing ring is rolled into place in the orchestra. An electronic scoreboard unfurls from the ceiling and the boxers go to their corners, for the start of the most exhilarating sports choreography you’re likely to experience in a theater.
That’s the best news about “Rocky,” because these are by far the show’s best 15 minutes. It’s fortunate that they’re also the last 15 minutes, as they send you out of the Winter Garden pumped. What comes before is not a rush. Although the performances by Karl and Margo Seibert, as his wallflower of girlfriend, Adrian, offer authentic moments of tenderness, they are let down by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s surprisingly tin-eared score, and the frequently movie-parroting book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone.
A reviewer can sound like a parrot, too, repeating a complaint about the trend toward appropriating plot, characters, images — and titles — of successful films and slapping them on Broadway musicals. Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” is the next of these, in a long list of overhauled screenplays with show tunes added, waiting for money to be raised and leases to be signed.
The creators of this “Rocky” are no band of carpetbaggers; they’re Broadway’s elite, with a collective résumé including “Ragtime” and “The Producers,” “Once” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” So the sluggish machinery powering much of the show is all the more disappointing. It’s not a good indicator, for instance, that the most exciting music comes in echoes of Bill Conti’s movie score, and that the most rousing visual cues are touchstone moments of the film: the steps to the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Rocky scales; the meat locker in which he works out with the sides of beef. Aside from some engineering marvels, in other words, the musical never speaks in its own, original voice.
In Timbers’s conception, the actors, too, seem trapped at times in somebody else’s story. With Stallone credited as co-author of the book — he was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay — much in the script has been retained, down to the amusing names of Rocky’s turtles, Cuff and Link. (Don’t feel bad if you find it a little incongruous, hearing the mumbling Rocky singing out in perfect rhyme.) Karl and Seibert still manage to establish a touching rapport, especially in the scenes of Rocky’s efforts to coax Adrian out of her own shell. They’re shown to particular sweet advantage together on a lyrical first-date, set in a darkened skating rink.
Archie’s Creed, however, feels reconceived in a mistaken way: The expression of his arrogance is confined to archly satirical songs with his entourage. The taunting contempt for Rocky has been toned down, and so we’re not allowed sufficiently to despise him. We’re made to feel as a result that the bout is not so much between the two fighters as between Rocky and his low self-esteem.
Dakin Matthews and Danny Mastrogiorgio do what they can as Mickey, his grizzled manager, and Paulie, his obnoxious brother-in-law-to-be. The true standouts in support are choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine, set designer Christopher Barreca and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, who thrillingly turn 15 rounds in the Winter Garden into a match with flair in Times Square.
Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreography, Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine; sets, Christopher Barreca; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Peter Hylenski; video, Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina. With Jennifer Mudge. About 2½ hours. Tickets, $39-$250. At Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.