'Rocky' on Broadway review: Andy Karl's a knockout, show isn't

Andy Karl and Dakin Matthews in a scene Andy Karl and Dakin Matthews in a scene from the "Rocky" Broadway musical, co-written by Sylvester Stallone. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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REVIEW

For a show that ends with the most impressive 20-minute boxing match ever seen in a Broadway musical, "Rocky" lacks conflict. Everyone is basically nice, even the gangsters, especially Andy Karl in a career-breakthrough performance as Rocky Balboa. And Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champ who plucks Rocky from loser-ville to manipulate an easy killing in the ring, isn't such a bad guy, either.

Oh, there is plenty of punch in the finale of Sylvester Stallone's adaptation of his iconic triumph-of-the-little-guy 1976 movie, which spawned five sequels. But we wouldn't call that drama.

Toward the end, the audience in the center-front section is marched onstage to sit on bleachers, while a boxing ring slides closer to us over the empty seats and a JumboTron descends from the ceiling. Then challenger Rocky and the flashy champ (the fine Terence Archie) go at one another -- jabbing and often landing their gloves so realistically that one wonders, really, how actors, even with smart choreographers, can do that.

And that's about it for the mysteries in this earnest show, co-written by Stallone and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan and directed with more conscientiousness than flair by Alex Timbers, one of the theater's most inventive forces.

But there is a sweet center here: Karl, who imbues the Cinderella-guy story with enormous reserves of macho sensitivity and the big heart that denizens of the South Philly gym keep describing. He can take a punch, swagger and seem jittery at the same time. He can do pullups on the closet pole in Rocky's endearing lonely mess of a home and, when he jokes with his two tiny turtles -- "Yo, turtles!" -- the self-proclaimed Italian Stallion seems more like an exceptionally hunky kitten.

Margo Seibert, as Rocky's adored Adrian, has a lush, belting voice, but the show turns her from reluctant mouse to beautiful companion too easily. Similarly, her bitter brother Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and the crusty manager (Dakin Matthews) get pleasant so quickly that Rocky has nothing to struggle against except his muscles.

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Then there is the music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens -- generic soft-pop ballads and inspirational-power songs that fade against the welcome return of "Gonna Fly Now" and "Eye of the Tiger" from the movies. Speaking of the movies, Christopher Barreco's sets, with lots of moving scaffolds and banks of lights, give Rocky some museum stairs to climb. He also drinks raw eggs for breakfast and runs through the city in training montages. Actually the city is on video and he runs in place. So does the show.


WHAT "Rocky"

WHERE Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway

INFO $79-$143; 212-239- 6200; rockybroadway.com

@Newsday

BOTTOM LINE Good boxing, no conflict.

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