Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Broadway Roundup: ‘Rocky’ Becomes a Musical & ‘All the Way’ Has Bryan Cranston as LBJ

Book by Thomas Meehan & Sylvester Stallone; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens Directed by Alex Timbers
Previews began February 13, 2014; opened March 13
Winter Garden Theatre, 50th Street & Broadway, New York, NY

All the Way
Written by Robert Schenkkan; directed by Bill Rausch
Previews began February 10, 2014; opened March 6
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

Seibert and Karl in Rocky (photo: Matthew Murphy)
When Sylvester Stallone created the iconic Rocky Balboa for his captivating, Oscar-winning 1976 movie, I doubt anyone would think the Philly boxing hero would be a candidate for a Broadway musical. Well, these days it seems everything becomes a musical—this season alone, there’s The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets over Broadway, Aladdin and Heathers—so why not Rocky? As this proficient but unnecessary musical makes clear, the real question is: why?

The main problem is that Rocky doesn’t need to be a musical. Anyone remotely familiar with the movie might find it off-putting that the movie is basically reenacted onstage—with the same dialogue—only to be stopped at times for musical numbers that feel shoehorned in from elsewhere. Since director John G. Avildsen’s movie is filled with ordinary people straining to get past their inarticulateness, to suddenly have an onstage Rocky Balboa talk to his trusty turtles then burst into lucid, muscular song, crooning “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” provides a disconnect that continues throughout the show.

There are decent musical moments. The haughtily arrogant champ Apollo Creed seems perfectly at home belting “Patriotic” with a trio of backup singers in tow after he decides to choose a local fighter for the big New Year’s bout. And Adrian, Rocky’s painfully shy girlfriend, has a gentle love song, “Raining,” that’s at least partly in character. But Lynn Ahrens’ banal lyrics are no substitute for the low-class poetry in Stallone’s original movie script: his repeated “yo Adrians” and “you knows” are more authentic than sung lines as “and today’s Thanksgivin’/and I’m sorta free/’cept I got no one but turtles/for company/and I was hopin’ that you’d go out with me.”

It’s a given that “Gonna Fly Now,” the original’s rousing theme song, and “Eye of the Tiger,” Rocky III’s faceless anthem, would appear—the former at the beginning and the latter during the too-long training sequences opening Act II—but what’s surprising is that none of Stephen Flaherty’s songs surpasses them. In fact, Flaherty’s generic power ballads and rockers pale next to Bill Conti’s alternately rousing and intimate movie music—indeed, the show’s most notable sounds feature tantalizing bits of Conti’s score.

Andy Karl’s Rocky adroitly blends Stallone’s original persona with his own take that never steps out of lowly character even while loftily, if incongruously, singing. Margo Seibert’s Adrian is as mousily endearing as Talia Shire, Danny Mastrogiorgio’s Paulie is more an amusing pest than the genuine nuisance Burt Young so memorably was, and if Dakin Mathews’ Mickey can’t hope to equal Burgess Meredith’s charmingly crusty trainer, he comes across with engaging klutziness.

As impressive as director Alex Timbers’ physical production is—utilizing Christopher Barecca’s inventive sets, Christopher Akerlind’s supple lighting and David Zinn’s sensible costumes—it reaches its apogee (or the ultimate in gimmickry) at the end, when audience members in front are herded onto the stage to sit in bleachers as the championship ring is moved into their places, giving everyone a better view of the fight. Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine’s vigorous fight choreography takes over so completely that, after watching Rocky and Apollo (the excellent Terence Archie) prodigiously fake so many upper cuts and feints—even in slow motion— everyone exiting Rocky will be humming its body blows, not songs.

Cranston as LBJ in All the Way (photo: Evgenia Eliseeva) 
A larger than life figure standing six foot four inches and owning a proudly abrasive Texan personality, President Lyndon Johnson was a formidable political opponent to anyone who got in his way. And in All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s serious and engrossing play about Johnson’s politicking for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and his own 1964 election, Bryan Cranston’s towering portrayal of LBJ is less a matter of height (the actor, who’s shorter, has two-inch lifts in his shoes) than of precision. Giving a big, blustery performance that teeters on the edge of caricature, Cranston deftly exhibits the crusty personality that tempered LBJ’s good-natured charm, the anchor of an endlessly resourceful portrait of a politician for whom unscrupulousness comes naturally.

Although his play could be seen as a cautionary tale for the current president—who for five years has met a hardened opposition party every step of the way—Schenkkan isn’t interested in mere polemics, for he has a rich subject that not only comprises Johnson himself, but the many people and events that revolve around him during a particularly fraught period of our history. The play begins on November 22, 1963—when Johnson assumed the presidency after JFK’s assassination—and ends on Election Day 1964 when LBJ gets four more years in the White House. What happens is well-known, but it’s how we get there, thanks to Schenkkan’s apposite writing, Bill Rausch’s savvy directing and the performances of Cranston and a large cast, that makes All the Way a sharp and meaty theatrical event.

Surrounding Johnson on all sides of the political spectrum are FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (a subtly squalid Michael McKean), racist Alabama governor George Wallace (Rob Campbell, good and slippery), LBJ mentor and Southern Dixiecrat senator Dick Russell (played by John McMartin, who oozes smugness like nobody’s business), spineless senator and wannabe VP candidate Hubert Humphrey (a cogent portrayal by Robert Petkoff) and civil rights agitator Martin Luther King (a fiery Brandon J. Dirden). As LBJ skillfully makes deals with, ignores or inflames these people, Schenkkan shows how this brilliant tactician combined opportunism and what he believed was the right thing. (Schenkkan’s new play, The Great Society, will take the measure of the man during his second presidential term.)

Standing front and center during this lengthy but riveting drama is Cranston’s LBJ. Sidling up to a crony, mentor or opponent to tell him another profane yarn filled with homespun and hard-won wisdom, Cranston lays bare the brazen duplicity that was Johnson’s weapon: he was your best friend who also stabbed you in the back. And All the Way shows how high risk brought high reward for our 36th president.

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