So about the actual show. Everyone knows the story, right? About the lovable down-on-his-luck boxer living in South Philadelphia (heyooo) who gets a chance at fighting in the biggest fight there is and loves a girl named Adrian? If you don’t you should go watch the movie. There’s a movie. Actually several.
My perception may have been colored because I had the best seat I’ve ever had for a show (thanks lottery! And the gods of fortune that day!). I won the cheap ticket lottery a few months ago (the show has since switched to a general rush policy with worse seats, which I think means it’s doing well) and got the seat right next to the conductor, front row center. Being that close to anything may help (but then again I had front row at “Bullets Over Broadway” and that’s not getting away with anything). The front rows are also part of the ridiculously fun Golden Circle, which we’ll get to later. Regardless, the entire audience at my performance seemed to love it, and I barely stopped smiling.
This is due mostly to Andy Karl, who plays Rocky Balboa and was deservedly nominated for a Tony Award. He is spectacular. He’s understated, super charming, funny and he works his ass off. He also drinks 3 raw eggs every performance, which is disgusting and awful but like that is commitment. Karl has a great singing voice but for this role his speaking voice was even more effective, though his (and everyone’s) accent veers more towards Brooklyn than Philly. It happens. But every time he says “Yo Adrian” – which is basically every time he opens his mouth – somehow it’s perfect and adorable and made me laugh, in the best way. Thankfully, his solo numbers were among the best songs of the show, as it should be. He has some rousing I-believe-in-me-oh-yes-you-just-watch songs, some nice ones about or with Adrian, and one really silly one to open with (“My Nose Ain’t Broken”) that establishes his character and his charm despite some cringeworthy lyrics. Also he has pet turtles. I don’t know if they are real, but he’s adorable with them. As all people are when they treat animals nicely.
Speaking of Adrian, she is a revelation. Margo Seibert’s acting is subtle and natural, and she hides this lovely voice that she expertly wields at the right moments. At several moments I had the urge to give her a hug, which was dangerous because I was close enough to actually do that. She has the most beautiful song in the show, “Raining”, which will likely become a staple performance piece of college girls trying to major in theatre. She also wears the famous red hat and white coat at the end, so nice job all around.
The lackluster songs come when other characters, like Apollo Creed, random scantily clad women, and Headmaster Charleston, were given songs that didn’t do anything to drive the plot forward. This show had enough happening; side characters didn’t need songs just to reinforce that this was a musical. They didn’t further develop the characters, but they bored the audience.
But yes so Headmaster Charleston (Dakin Matthews) is in this, playing Rocky’s coach. When I first saw him onstage I got real scared that he was going to yell at me for breaking into the school at midnight to ring a bell. Thankfully, he didn’t. He’s well cast, but he should not have a song, especially one that is lame and at the top of Act II. The beginning of Act II in any musical needs to be energetic and interesting, because a) you have to bring the audience back into the story and b) second acts are notoriously worse than first acts so why not try to fight that? This ill-planned song about how the coach used to fight or something was like RoadRunner falling off a cliff like beeeyoooahhhhhhhhhbummmmmm (#soundeffects). Filler and dead filler at best. That’s the director’s fault.
After that, the first half of the second act is pretty much training montages set to “Eye of the Tiger”, and damn if they aren’t incredibly fun. That’s how the act should have begun. I’m pretty sure Karl works out like 18 hours a day, but the workout he gets in this show would be enough for a normal person. He jogs back and forth across the stage as digital backgrounds show parts of Philly (that no sane person would run through without a vest), he does push-ups and pull-ups, he drinks the raw eggs (ew), he punches the sides of beef hanging in his friend’s meat locker (ahhhh), and yes he runs up the Art Museum steps (woooo!). I was exhausted just watching it. Hell I’m exhausted just writing about it.