Rocky

Shari Rocky

Winter Garden Theatre, March 7, 2014

Shari on the Aisle Rating: ****

Director:  Alex Timbers

Book: Thomas Meehan & Sylvester Stallone

Music & Lyrics: Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens

Lead Cast:  Andy Karl (Rocky), Terence Archie (Apollo Creed), Margo Seibert (Adrian), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Paulie), Dakin Matthews (Mickey), Jennifer Mudge (Gloria)

Background: The Place: Philadelphia. The Time: 1975. You already know the story. Rocky Balboa is a big-hearted, two-bit fighter who can’t quite be described as over the hill—because he’s never made it up the hill. Rocky can’t get no respect: the other fighters at the gym mock him, the gym owner gives his locker to a younger, more promising fighter, and the girl of his dreams, Adrian, won’t give him a tumble. The only good news? As Rocky sings at the beginning of Act 1: “My Nose Ain’t Broken.” (This will no longer be true by the final curtain, but better to have your nose broken than your spirit). Then, fate hands him an opportunity to take on the heavy weight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

Rocky the musical is of course based on Sylvester Stallone’s multiple Academy Award-winning (including Best Picture) 1976 film. The entire production team is made up of top notch theatre folk. 35-year-old Alex Timbers is a two-time Tony-nominated director and writer best known for the critically acclaimed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty won every top award for Ragtime. Their other credits include Once on This Island, My Favorite Year, and the animated film Anastasia (Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations). And let’s not forget Stallone himself, the original Rocky, who against all odds, convinced Hollywood to take a chance on an unknown writer and actor. By getting the film made he personified the movie’s tagline: “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.” (The musical’s tag line is “Love Wins”).

In a Nutshell: The last line of the show is “I love you, Rocky.” That’s exactly what audiences are going to say about this talent-filled, well produced spectacle of a musical. I predict it’s going to be HUGE. I hope Andy Karl is ready for his close up.

Why Rocky Will Be a Hit: Because the show is based on such a popular film (albeit it one made nearly 40 years ago), Rocky the musical has a built-in fan base—people who love the film, love Stallone, and/or love boxing. The thinking was probably, if you produce it, they will come. But as we’ve seen recently with the struggling Broadway musical Bridges of Madison County, that’s not enough to fill a theatre. What does Rocky have in addition to the popularity of its source material? One word: spectacle. Sure, the show has some touching songs delivered by a talented, winning cast. But the final 30 minutes—the epic fight between Apollo Creed, the heavy weight champion of the world, and local boy Rocky—is so brilliantly staged, so exciting, so audience involving, that it’s impossible not to be entirely captivated, moved, and swept away by it.

The Spectacle: Just before the fight begins, everyone seated in the first seven rows of the center orchestra section (the “Golden Circle” seats) gets up, climbs some stairs to the stage, and sits on upstage bleachers. Once they’re settled, the entire boxing ring set moves outward, into the audience, covering those vacated rows of seats. A circular set piece of monitors comes down from the ceiling over the ring. Other giant monitors display the announcers’ play-by-play. Rocky runs down the aisle of the Winter Garden and into the ring, followed by Apollo and his 70’s flash-tacular entourage. For 20 minutes you feel as though you are actually at the Philadelphia Spectrum, sitting ringside, watching the fight of the century. It is thrilling, brilliant theatre.

In Addition: I realize I haven’t said much about the cast or the individual songs. There are some lovely moments—Rocky and Adrian, finally together, decorate a Christmas tree and sing a beautiful duet, “Happiness.” Adrian finally stands up to her bullying brother Paulie in the strong “I’m Done.” There’s Rocky’s inspirational “Keep on Standing.” All of the leads are fine. The fight choreography by Steven Hoggett is amazing. But it’s Alex Timbers’ creative staging of the final showdown that everyone will be talking about.

Ticket Tips: As of this writing (I saw a preview a week before opening night), discounted tickets are available on both TDF, the Times Sq. TKTS booth, and other outlets including Playbill.com. There is a lottery for each performance (beginning 2 hours before curtain and ending 1.5 hours before curtain) for 20 tickets in the first two rows of the orchestra (in the Golden Circle section). If you’re buying full price tickets I would recommend choosing the center orchestra section behind the Golden Circle section (so, beyond Row F). I was in Row K and I felt like I had the best seat in the house for the fight. Be aware that people in the first rows in the side sections of the orchestra have to stand during the fight sequence, as the action is taking place to their left or right. I’ve heard that the Golden Circle ticket holders can’t see that well once they’re seated on the stage.

If you want to meet & greet the cast, the stage door is behind the theatre, over on 7th Avenue.

Show website

All the Way

Neil Simon TheatreAll the Way cropped

Shari on the Aisle Rating: **1/2

Director:  Bill Rauch

Playwright: Robert Schenkkan

Lead Cast: Bryan Cranston (President Lyndon Baines Johnson), Robert Petkoff (Sen. Hubert Humphrey), John McMartin (Sen. Richard Russell), Michael McKean (J. Edgar Hoover), Brandon J. Dirden (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Rob Campbell (Gov. George Wallace and others), Betsy Aidem (Lady Bird Johnson and others).

In a Nutshell: The time is November, 1963-November, 1964. LBJ, a self-described “accidental president,” is trying to convince Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill while planning his strategy for the upcoming presidential election. Political deals are struck. Threats are made. Tempers flare. Although this is a pivotal time in American history, and the play is a laudable effort to educate those too young to remember the events that took place, obviously we know how things are going to turn out. The bill becomes law (minus the voting rights component) and Johnson wins the 1964 election against Republican Barry Goldwater. Certainly, as evidenced by the film Lincoln, which All the Way parallels in many ways, we know how gripping the back story of passing an important piece of legislation can be. However, although the events depicted in the play—both in the South and in Washington—are quite dramatic and well expressed, at just shy of three hours, All the Way is way too long.

Let’s Talk about Bryan Cranston: Although Cranston is no stranger to the theatre, All the Way marks his Broadway debut. He is of course best known for his performance as Walter White in the hit television series Breaking Bad. Cranston won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series three consecutive times for his work on the show—the first person to do so since Bill Cosby in the 1960s. Here’s the good news: Cranston is a hell of an actor. He is on stage for nearly the entire performance, and he does a terrific job capturing LBJ’s cantankerous brand of Texan bravado. Supposedly, he wears heel lifts to appear taller than he really is, but he’s so thin that when Lady Bird refuses him gravy for his pork chops because he needs to diet, it momentarily breaks the suspension of disbelief.

In Addition: The large cast is made up of many seasoned Broadway veterans, including: Michael McKean (The Best Man, Superior Donuts, Pajama Game, etc.), John McMartin (Into the Woods, High Society, Sweet Charity, Don Juan, etc)., and Brandon J. Dirden (Clybourne Park, Enron, Prelude to a Kiss). Everyone does a fine job. The single set, by Christopher Acebo, is creatively used to form spaces depicting the houses of Congress as well as various meeting venues for civil rights leaders and politicians. Projections designed by Shaw Sagady help shed light on various historical events of the time, heightening their sense of immediacy.

About the Title: Until late in the play the title held no meaning for me. Then, during the heated presidential election, Johnson’s supporters shouted his campaign slogan, “All the Way with LBJ!” Ah-ha!

Trivia: From 1994 to 1997, Bryan Cranston appeared on Seinfeld as Dr. Tim Whatley, Jerry’s dentist. Playwright Robert Schenkkan is also an actor. He portrayed Lieutenant Commander Dexter Remmick in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Bottom Line: All the Way is an intelligent play with excellent production values that highlights a pivotal time in U.S. history, although it can seem a bit pedantic at times. No doubt many non-theatre goers will buy a ticket to see Walter White in person, and that’s a good thing. However, both the play and Cranston’s fans would be better served if the production team would shave 20-30 minutes off of the play’s run time. Politics is dramatic, but only to a point.

Discount tickets for All the Way are frequently available at TKTS.