Winter Garden Theatre, New York City
It’s a wonder that this Rocky ever reaches the top of the steps, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. For a good two hours, Broadway’s newest movie-derived musical “feels like such a flatliner that you can’t imagine that it could pull itself into any kind of competitive shape.” The plot hasn’t changed since 1976, when screenwriter Sylvester Stallone held the title role: A mumbling palooka from South Philly seeks a new girl and world glory, and we root for him as he turns the climb up a museum’s grand entrance stairs into the Mount Everest of his daily training routine (cue theme music). But though the story’s characters now occasionally break into song, this staging feels leaden by design, as though the audience is being invited to join pre-bounce-back Rocky in his existential rut. It’s also doggedly sincere—“even when Rocky is serenading his pet turtle about what a loser he is.”
How bad could the show be? said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. Only a few members of the cognoscenti didn’t like the movie back in the day, and because this Rocky “sticks closely, at times slavishly, to the source,” all the best lines and story beats from Stallone’s original screenplay have been preserved. Yes, the adaptation is “a straight-down-the-center commodity musical,” but in that category, it’s “maybe the best I’ve ever seen.” And it ends with a “rock-’em-sock-’em” 15-minute fight sequence that “will set the snobbiest of theatergoers to cheering.”
The music is harder to love, said Thom Geier in Entertainment Weekly. Too many of the songs by past Tony winners Stephen Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens “feel like missed opportunities”: They “merely shadowbox with melody and never land the pop-rock punch they often seem to be seeking.” The actors do their part, said Jesse Green in New York magazine. Star Andy Karl “sells Rocky’s sensitivity with ease,” and newcomer Margo Seibert “makes a lovely match for him.” But the “sad and delicate romance” their late-bloomer characters inhabit never meshes with the fight’s circus atmosphere. You want to give your heart over to Rocky and Adrian, “but it turns out that the love story was bait for the spectacle,” and you can’t help but feel you’ve been had.