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"Rocky" on Broadway

Okay, I’m as surprised as anyone. I adored Rocky the Musical.

As the South Philadelphia boxer who wants to be a contender, Andy Karl is as charismatic as John F. Kennedy, Ricky Martin, and Rin Tin Tin, all rolled into one. He’s hunky, he’s cute, and the way he takes his hat off when he talks to Adrian, the way he talks to his turtles, the way he can’t make himself break the thumbs of a local butcher when he’s working as a goon for a loan shark, all add to his appeal.

The formula is simple. We fall in love with him during Act One. We root for him during Act Two. We go berserk during the final minutes of the show when a boxing ring floats out over the orchestra seats and we are treated to the most exciting boxing choreography ever to be staged.

The fact is that simple stories lend themselves nicely to musicals. In an interview, Stephen Sondheim once objected to being called a “poet.” “I’m not a poet,” he insisted. “Poetry is too complex for the musical theater. I am a lyricist.” As an example he recited Oscar Hammerstein’s most famous lyric: “Oh what a beautiful morning. Oh what a beautiful day. I have a beautiful feeling. Everything’s going my way.” Any poet would be embarrassed to have penned that. As a lyric; it’s genius. An audience cannot stop, reread, or linger. A musical must be grasped in a single gesture. Rocky fits the bill.

The show has an impressive pedigree. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who also wrote Ragtime and Once on This Island, with a book by Thomas Meehan. I found their work entirely satisfying.

For the record, the New York Times trashed this show. In a clever and oft repeated review, Ben Brantley of the Times quipped, “at the risk of promoting tardiness among theatergoers, I feel obliged to point out that the show doesn’t really get started until 10:10 or thereabouts.” Maybe it’s the Buffalonian in me, but I disagree. I enjoy rooting for the underdog.