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Rocky — Winter Garden Theatre, New York

untitled (8)What the Broadway musical rendition of “Rocky” captures best is the heart of the 1976 movie that catapulted Sylvester Stallone and Philadelphia’s Art Museum steps to lasting, indelible fame.

Andy Karl is every bit the loveable pug Stallone was. Given his magnificent singing voice, and the expression he conveys with it, Karl may even be a deeper, more empathetic Rocky. He has a stoic quality that makes him seem more down and out while being no less down-to-earth. Margo Seibert also wins your affection as Adrian. She undergoes a fine transition from looking one step above some of the cuter rodents she sells in her Fishtown pet store to being a confident, lovely woman who is a great support to the fighter who had a crush on her since he was a boy of eight.

Stephen Flaherty is canny enough to begin his score for “Rocky” with the iconic first notes of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” before launching into a variation and making the musical signature for the show his own. Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics are more basic than her usual, more poetic compositions, but her more direct approach serves the characters and situations better, and she has a chance to exhibit her more patented style in Adrian’s first song, “Raining,” and a duet between Rocky and Adrian, “Happiness.” Expert veteran Thomas Meehan joins Stallone on honing the “Rocky” story for the stage, and the play truly evolves from just what you expect to a story that grabs your attention and touches your warmer emotions. It’s good work all around.

“Rocky” is more than a genre piece. Its focal character may be a fighter, and boxing is a central part of his milieu, but Stallone and Meehan tell a human story, backed up by Karl, Seibert, and Dakin Matthews, who after a wobbly start, turns out to be someone you care about as Micky, the owner the gym where Rocky trained, and the guy who took away his locker to give it to younger fighters who Micky judged had more ambition and potential.

Genre is important to much of Alex Timbers’s in-the-moment staging, the choreography by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine, and the contributions made by Patrick McCollum as assistant fight choreographer and Vince Oddo, one of Karl’s understudies as fight captain. Just as grand singing always causes excitement in movies about opera, and magnificent dancing on film motivates people to head to the ballet, Timbers and company maximize scenes that take place in the ring or involve the training necessary to wage a worthy pugilistic battle.

Boxing becomes a star of “Rocky.” Timbers makes every moment anyone spends wearing Everlast equipment a powerful reminder about why a sport that many regard as brutal is so engrossing and entertaining. From the opening moment when Rocky is seen in a chump bout for chump change, your adrenaline kicks into action as you chart each punch, each bob, each weave, each counterpunch, and each slam to the body.

Timbers and Karl are clever enough to show something about Rocky in that first sequence that has only ambient dialogue and the cheers of the fight crowd and members of the audience who choose to root along. They let you see he is like a dog who bites into one end of a rope and wrangles with you while you try to get it from him. Rocky is persistent. He responds to the beating he’s taking by wanting to give back the punishment more fiercely.

Other boxing moments have as much impact (pun intended). A tableau of Sam J. Cahn as boxing great and Rocky idol, Rocky Marciano, is stunning for its grace, discipline, and study of an icon. Training scenes that involve Karl and the entire male chorus using stage time in lieu of a gym workout, are precise and energizing. You feel the pain it takes to get the gain, an achievement because, in most cases, even when dancers and athletes go through paces that strain the body, the audience sees the talent but doesn’t sense the effort in their own bodied. Watching “Rocky” you do, and it is invigorating. Training, by the way, gives Timbers a chance to incorporate “Gonna Fly Now” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” from “Rocky III.”

The best boxing moment, the one that will stun even the most jaded theatergoer or movie buff who has slogged though pug pics from Wallace Beery to Mark Wahlberg, is the closing sequence. Timbers, McCollum, and company not only stage a meticulously choreographed fight. They make each move of it into a form of poetry and show boxing at its more balletic and artistic. To make the world championship bout between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed even more immediate, Timbers has the people in the first six rows of the center audience vacate their seat and move to the stage, in amazing neat and orderly fashion, while music occupies the rest of the crowd, and the boxing ring for the title match glides forward from the stage into the house where everyone gets a closer look at the action.

I was on the eighth row, two away from the ropes, and I could feel the anticipation of dodging sweat, spit, and stage blood as I focused with undivided attention to each maneuver McCollum, Hoggett, and Devine come up with to make this the Rocky-Apollo fight into a lollapalooza.

The staging is immediate, exciting, and remarkable. It draws you so completely into the action and is its own reward, being so artistically and viscerally executed. The experience is so rousing, it carries you on the street and energizes your step.

With all the pluses “Rocky” offers, it will definitely share in the magic the last two tenants of the Winter Garden, “Cats” and “Mamma Mia,” enjoyed. No matter what the reviews, and some may be mixed, “Rocky” has such popular appeal, public demand should carry the show into a run that lasts years.

“Rocky’s” story is familiar. John Avildsen’s 1976 film was like its lead character, a little train that could, a modest effort that was appreciated for its humanity and storytelling and captured the public imagination. In a society that values the past less and less and doesn’t pay attention to much from 1976,” just about every kid knows “Rocky” and the origin of “Yo, Adrian.”

Meehan, Stallone, and Timbers had the challenge of taking an iconic tale that is so well-known, it holds few surprises and make it as beloved to a 2014 theater audience paying $140 a ticket as it was to a pre-home video movie crowd that paid less than five bucks to see Stallone’s Italian Stallion maximize his unexpected opportunity and win the woman he’s loved his entire conscious life.

Sincerity carries them through. “Rocky” reserves its flash for scenes that feature Apollo Creed, a celebrity who travels with an entourage in clothes that are designed to be noticed and who carries his fame as a World Champion heavyweight with him. (How’s that for a difference from today? In 1976, people knew star boxers. Today, few can tell you the names of the German brothers who share the heavyweight crown.)

When Creed is on stage, 21st century saffa daffa follows him. The stage becomes more glittery. Enter the promoter’s office of Miles Jergens, the man who has to come up with a last-minute challenger to Creed when another fighter scrubs, and the mirrored flock of the ’70s meets the glitz of 2014, and we see the tawdy glamor of high-stakes prizefighting.

Rocky’s world stays humble and hardscrabble. His apartment is basically a room that has the necessities and lots of clutter. His bedroom is almost a window sill, his bathroom little more than a closet.

The pet store where Adrian works, and the more homelike house where Adrian lives with her brother, Paulie, are also realistic as designed by Christopher Barreca. They show the working class lifestyle in Fishtown and South Philly, which Philadelphians know are nowhere near each other, but serve well for a play or movie in which few of the auditors will know the difference (or the absurdity of the route Rocky takes on his famous run).

The authenticity of the sets, and of some characters’ Philadelphia accents (Kevin del Aguila’s as an ice skating rink watchman, is prime!) set up the parts of the story that give the production its soul and make it inconsequential whether people know the plot or not. Just as someone can watch “Rocky” over and over and not get tired, Timbers’s staging keeps Stallone’s material fresh and affecting.

You care about Rocky and Adrian and ache when they are disappointed or buffeted by the meanness of their lives. They become the romantics in a city of people who revel in being hard and insensitive. Rocky has to endure the thug from he makes a living by roughing up debt delinquents and people who put him down for not putting in the work to become the boxing talent he may have been. Adrian is constantly mistreated by Paulie, who is less a regular guy and more a white trash lout than he was in Avildsen’s film.

These are a pair who have a lot of disparagement and low esteem to overcome. To the credit of Timbers, the writers, Karl and Seibert, their relationship never becomes corny or stale. As an audience, you want them to get together with the same desire that Rocky has to win Adrian.

It is the romantic story of the unappreciated underdogs that gives “Rocky” its life. The story is hardly new, but it never plays as a cliché. Rocky and Adrian’s relationship advances. One character changes dramatically because of it, and Karl and Seibert have the acting ability and heart to bring the evolution of a good thing to life. As Adrian says, other conditions of the couple’s life won’t matter if they can find happiness together.

I know. That sounds as old as the hills and as corny as a chowder, but Timbers, Karl, and Seibert keep all at sweet sentimental level that never wanders into sentimentality or treacle. There’s a reality to Rocky and Adrian’s mating that legitimately earns our wistful regard and joy.

All of the elements of “Rocky” come together neatly and in a way that satisfies. Boxing bravado in Miles Jergens’s office and Apollo Creed’s entourage is contrasted with the nuts and bolts of the guys training at Micky’s gym. Scenes is the ring give “Rocky” size while scenes on the street give it humanity. It all blends well. The show works.

The Flaherty and Ahrens score is more serviceable than artistic. It exists to give characters chances to vent and give “Rocky” a reason to be remarketed.

Flaherty gets more chance than Ahrens to be creative. He can write ballads like “Raining” while also having the opportunity to write soaring material to accompany fights or augment and score the known music by Conti and Survivor that figures into the training scenes.

Ahrens has to be more prosaic. Her lyrics and clear and make the characters’ points of view and emotions known, the task Ahrens most often has to fulfill. That said, there are some random turns of phrase that show the lyricist’s wit and songs like that express more intense emotions, like Adrian’s “I’m Done” or the ensemble’s “Wanna Know Why?” give “Rocky” a texture that’s missing from imperative numbers like Creed’s “Patriotic” or Rocky’s “Fight From the Heart,” that works in context but is obvious in its ideas and sentiments.

Music is key to the training scenes that has a dozen Rockys, including Karl, going through grueling paces from jumping jacks and push ups to punishing roadwork through Philadelphia is a typically cold and damp winter. Designer Barraca makes good use of the grays, keeping even the projections of Philadelphia’s El (elevated commuter trains) and Italian market in black and white while mixing in color for scenes along the Schuylkill River leading to the Art Museum, which is represented only by its steps.

While the training sequences are long, they retain high interest because of the energy Hoggett and Devine give them. Choreography outside of the fight and training scenes is basic. “Rocky” is a story of love and determination. It doesn’t suggest dancing of a kind usually seen on Broadway. Karl and Seibert have one cute number when they go ice skating and sing “The Flip Side.”

Andy Karl is a definite rival to “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” lead Jefferson Mays for the 2014 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical.

Karl more than meets the show’s need. He not only shows Rocky’s puppyish side and acceptance, at time sardonic acceptance, at being a loser with few bright prospects, he makes you love Rocky and care about him by always giving him a semblance of a rough little boy who needs attention and would respond to even a dash of gentleness or kindness.

Rocky is told by everyone how inferior he is. No one but his pet turtles, bought from Adrian as an excuse to visit the pet store to buy food, show him even a modicum of respect, and the turtles, Cuff and Link, do it benignly, in the voices and lines Rocky gives them.

The expression on Karl’s face that conveys that no one has said a warm or encouraging word to this guy in ages creates and cements the audience’s affection for Rocky.

Physically, Karl is built in a way that makes him looks like an imposing opponent. Like Stallone, he is more muscular than big, but he moves with a boxer’s slouchy lope and graceful step.

Musically, Karl is a gem. He sings with conviction and uses his songs to underscore the larger, more deserving human being that is inside the hangdog Rocky. Karl’s voice is full and able to maintain its strength while conveying emotion. Flaherty and Ahrens serve him well by giving Rocky tunes that let Karl’s voice soar.

As a fighter, Karl makes even the most stylistic moves, such as freezing a frame or going in slower motion before landing a major punch, seen naturalistic. Credit Terence Archie, as Apollo, for being a great partner for this pugilistic pas de deux. Fight sequences are truly exciting. You hear the Gillette “To look sharp” song in your head, even over Flahertys music, as they proceed.

Rocky cannot be acted by the numbers. You have to see, and not just hear about his regard for Adrian, and Karl exposes his Rocky so that all he feels and thinks is visible. His style of convincing Adrian to take a chance with him and his romancing of her is also done at a level that shows a deft actor at work and not just someone relying on an iconic character or a sweet situation to do the work. Karl and Seibert create the bond between Rocky and Adrian, and it’s a treat to watch do it.

As Rocky, Karl emerges from being the staunch ensemble player of “Jersey Boys” to being a genuine leading man who shows he is as ready for the challenge of playing Rocky as Rocky is up for the challenge of taking on Apollo Creed.

Margo Seibert, who has impressive credentials in Chicago and D.C., establishes her place as a Broadway star as Adrian.

More than Rocky, Adrian goes through a metamorphosis as a woman who is competent but comfortable only in her small, controllable world, the pet shop when her co-workers are gone or her home when she doesn’t have to cope with Paulie’s insults, taunts, and abuse.

Seibert shows your Adrian’s inner poise even as David Zinn’s costumes cast images of a woman beyond mousy to hopelessly uncaring about how she looks or presents herself to a world she figures is not likely to notice her anyhow.

If not for Rocky’s 20-year-old crush, Adrian would probably continue as a woman whose life is miniscule but all she allows herself to expect.

I liked the way Seibert showed her gladness at Rocky’s attention while never conveying anything warm to Rocky himself. You see she is a romantic as much as Rocky is. She only needs to be coaxed from the solace she gets when she’s alone and all is quiet to leave herself open to it.

Adrian’s emergence from her shell seems natural in Seibert’s hands. She, with the help of Zinn and wig and makeup designer Harold Mertens, makes subtle changes, a more open look, a quicker smile, a confidence less wary of being undermined since Rocky is not Paulie.

The more cosmetic, better dressed Adrian we see towards the end of the show doesn’t seem to be a sudden creation that suits the story and Timbers’s direction because Seibert has controlled Adrian’s growth so well.

As with Karl, Seibert finds the right emotional tone in her musical numbers. You can see her melt a little in the icy scene that leads to “The Flip Side.” You believe her quick recovery from a trauma Paulie causes when she and Karl reprise “Happiness” following a dramatic upheaval.

When Dakin Matthews began his performance as Micky, I thought I was watching an able character actor who was not comfortable with his part. Vocally and by posture, Matthews didn’t seem to fit in with the grungy setting or tough language of Micky’s gym. He seems to be doing his lines to get the information across instead of playing a character, a habit I call “line barking.”

Matthews was just waiting for something substantial for Micky to do but berate Rocky and yell at other boxers. When he has a scene that requires characterization, he rises to the occasion and becomes as realistic and effective as the rest of the cast. Matthews is particularly good in a scene in which Rocky rejects a good will gesture and another in which he levels with the finally inquisitive Rocky about what the fighter needs to have a chance against the more polished, more bloodthirsty, more successful Creed.

Terence Archie fills the bill perfectly as Creed, a man who is aware and proud of his achievements in the ring and who likes displaying the glamorous rewards of his victories but who also has the casual, nonchalant ease of a celebrity who has gotten past the first blush of fame and become accustomed to it.

Archie plays Creed’s confidence, but he also shows his self-possession as someone who has proved himself, repeatedly, in battle and doesn’t to put on any airs but sharp style.

In the championship bout, Archie does a good job at turning from the complacent Creed who believes he can knock out Rocky any time he has the whim to a fierce competitor who feels and takes to heart the challenge of this David who can take his title. Archie’s expression the first time Rocky wounds Creed, which is the first time Creed has been wounded in a fight, is an excellent blend of surprise, wonder, anger, and promise of retribution.

Danny Mastrogiorgio is so wormy and nasty as the cynical, unhappy Paulie, you know he is one heck of an actor. Unlike Burt Young in the movie, Mastrogiorgio has no redeeming characters. He doesn’t seem like a regular guy. He comes across as a mean-spirited malcontent who resents everything and everyone around him, particularly Rocky whose job as a debt enforcer he covets.

Paulie will bring Rocky to the butcher shop where we works and let him practice his punch against the hanging beef carcasses waiting to be chopped into steak, but he always has a slimy angle or price. His approach to his sister, Adrian, doesn’t have a hint of love. Rather, it seems as if Paulie plans how to hurt Adrian’s feeling and make her miserable and ready to retreat to the birds, rabbits, turtles, and fish in the pet shop.

Ned Eisenberg is Bob Dunphy when he plays the ring announcer. Jennifer Mudge, Jenny Lee Stern, and Michelle Aravena do all they are asked to as Adrian’s co-workers. Vashty Mompoint plays a reporter who carries mike with a shield from Philadelphia’s WPVI, Channel 6. For the record, people in Philadelphia call “the ‘Rocky’ steps the Art Museum.

“Rocky” runs open-ended at the Winter Garden Theatre, 50th Street and Broadway, in New York. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $143 to $79 and can be obtained by calling 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250 or going online to http://www.telecharge.com.

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