Sound Advice Reviews
Ahrens & Flaherty
You might have heard the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty songs for the musical Rocky are upstaged by the show's downstage boxing match finale. But listening to a cast album is such a different experience, with just the audio component of a show's singing performances and characterizations to consider. (We get a bunch of color photos in the booklet, along with the worth-examining lyrics and some introductory comments.) Without such elements as that extended fight sequence, reduced to a condensed sound bite for atmosphere and cheer here, we're left with the score. It's pumped up with recycled themes from the original films: In various guises, we get the empowering push of "Gonna Fly Now" slingshot-aimed in like producer-prescribed proven steroid injections; also featured is the pop hit energy anthem "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky III. We do hear snippets of the book, a collaboration of Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan and movie star/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone's original script, liberally invoking Rocky's favored all-purpose monosyllabic philosophical comment"Yo!!". Fortunately, the talented team of lyricist Ahrens and composer Flaherty don't just settle for pastiche of sounds redolent of the era and musical ethos where the original was setthe 1970s with its disco thump and the Philadelphia music soundso their best work herein is more timeless than a sigh of the times. There is still some noisy pep rally hoopla and force-fed frenzy; many references to the athletic subject at (gloved) hand are to be expected. But while the bravura boasting of "Undefeated Man" and the odes to determination like "Keep on Standing" are rigorously de rigueur and may be pushing it as they serve their button-pushing purposes, they provide the requisite flavor.
The songwriters shine when revealing the yearning, the tender hearts and insecurities of dogged underdog Rocky and his shy sweetheart Adrian, and the two leads sweetly rise to the occasion. Andy Karl, without abandoning the persona of the big lumbering lug of the "loser" who dreams big of being a winner, makes the would-be tough guy appealingly vulnerable. His way of speaking that would make a grammarian cry has its grudging charm. In "Fight from the Heart," he sings to namesake boxer hero Rocky Marciano, "If you was here, Rocky/ What would ya tell me to do?/ You been in this corner/ I ain't comparing myself." A few lines later, he adds: "I still got enough pride even now," suggesting that the stoic's stiff upper lip comes not from a boxing injury but from inside. In the number named for his slow-blooming wallflower ("Adrian"), he opens up and seeks to have her do the same ("We been hurt, you and me/ We been told we're nothin'/ But together, maybe/ There is somethin' we could be"). This reinforces their discovery that they complement each other as "The Flip Side" of each other, translating into their own brand of "Happiness," in duets with Margo Seibert's calibrated and empathetic work as Adrian. She's a major asset. Karl's tender, open vocal quality lets him be sadly wistfulnot wimpymaking us care about him building his confidence as a person, not just building a boxing career. We see how the latter is a means to an end, even if he doesn't see it. We root for him outside the ring. And we're given "permission" to chuckle at the mission of his overconfident undefeated opponent to master his crafty manipulations and his self-satisfied self-promotional packaging for the public. Terence Archie is entertainingly smug as the posturing pugilist, Apollo.
There are some very broad strokes of heroics and grandstanding. For example, in "I'm Done" Adrian bursting into combustive rage feels cartoonish, but perhaps dialogue leading up to it justifies the extremes. The item I adore in the score is the one number assigned to the crusty coach, Mickey (Dakin Matthews), explaining the spirit of the 76-year-old. It's a schmaltzy, waltz-y "In the Ring" ("The '20s was roarin'/ when I joined the game ... and rival by rival/I earned my survival"). An unexpected delight, it rosily romanticizes the nostalgia of the old guy's old days, recalling the sighing sentimentality of "Days Gone By" in She Loves Me. Ahrens and Flaherty capture some of the gutsy high stakes drive of a boxer who has doubts about the bouts, but sees the sport as his best shot of getting out of his life's rut. While it's, gratifyingly, not the be-all and end-all of their song subjects (who especially wants an ESPN musical?), the lure of the ring still rings true in some of the writing. And it's not the first time these writers considered a boxer as one to admire (their "Rookie in the Ring" is a favorite of their My Favorite Year).
Like the material itself, the accompaniment by the large orchestra is most effective when allowing the delicate egos to be massaged simply. But some of the over-the-top showmanship is fine and fun in the orchestrations of Stephen Trask (yes, the composer-lyricist of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Doug Besterman, and composer Flaherty did his own skillful vocal arrangements, making the mobs of fans more interesting and easier to hear. For me, the imposition of the old Rocky movie themes is tacky and sounds tacky, cheapeningly challenging the impact of the original music, underlining the difficulty of the assignment. It's a trend that has reared its head in other beloved-movie-to-stage creations. Rocky is best when it aims high and strikes a brave blow for emotional truth and honesty. Allowing Adrian to poetically but pathetically compare her sad-sack sack of unhappiness to being "like a weed that grows from a pavement crack toward a patch of sun" whose "odds are ten to none" is touching. In this piece, hauntingly sung by Margo, "Raining," where she fears "I might float away," Rocky doesn't just show its heart, but approaches art.
Rocky's "Raining" and "Rain" from Once on This Island are just two examples from the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty oeuvre that suddenly stand out as stand-alone songs. Not these pieces' original interpreters, Liz Callaway makes "Raining" a rich, evocative vignette and Quentin Earl Darrington makes "Rain" gain dignity and prominence. Other tracks have original or revival cast members recreating their numbers on this live double-disc set, proving that in reunion there is strength. But those appearances may be of less interest to those who've collected the Ahrens/Flaherty cast albums and don't want this, with similarly-styled renditions, to feel like a compilation album plucked from those. Most selections are done with just a six-man band. Does that make them seem comparatively threadbare or refreshingly spare? It depends on your perspective. Certainly the audience at the show(s) showed pleasure, but retaining the extended vociferous applause and cheering on some numbers can become wearing for home listening. The ravishing Callaway re-visit to her song from the animated Anastasia can serve appropriately as a theme for this look back on the team's 30-year collaboration, as its title is "Journey to the Past."
It's not just the past that was being celebrated: Rocky had not yet opened on Broadway, so "Raining" was a preview as are two selections from the upcoming and intriguing Little Dancer (Jeremy Jordan's lovely and charismatic "Dancing Still" and Stephanie J. Block's hold-your-breath hold on the fragile "Ballerina"). And Little Dancer cast member Rebecca Luker brings her palpable star quality and appreciated elegance to something not from that score, but rather another project in the works called Legacy. "Something Beautiful" is the number's title and accurate description as it's wrought by this soprano class act, singing "Silently reaching outward, silently holding tight/ And my roots go deep..." (singing as a willow tree; yes, it works).
Child actor Lewis Grosso is quite the delight paired with Seussical original cast rep Kevin Chamberlin both in that show's "Alone in the Universe" and the Ragtime cut-out "The Show Biz" getting a new lease on life, especially cheeky with a kid actor's supposed blasé shrugging attitude as the two compare notes. From Lucky Stiff, we get Miss Callaway having her way with the cozy "Times Like This," a little jewel. From the same show, we get its more typical madcap moments: Marin Mazzie pulls out all the stops for the over-the-top "Speaking French" and Mary Testa bites into her original wacky role with fresh-feeling relish. It's a fictional (and very different) Mary recalled warmly in "The Cuddles Mary Gave," one of two numbers from A Man of No Importance graced by Sean McCourt, who also offers "Streets of Dublin." But that musical's most affecting and luminous samplingand one of an impressive concert's ultimate high points of artistryis Jessica Molaskey's moving and masterful "Love Who You Love." Informed by observing her castmates living the piece night after night, the superb actress-singer brings great understanding and feeling to her own highly communicative rendition. Whereas some would go for the jugular or lecture pulpit to belt, anthem-like, with this message song, she finds depths in empathetic directness.
While the well-represented Once Upon This Island was the team's Broadway debut, their collaborations predate that. Once upon the island of Manhattan, they teamed up in a BMI workshop and as Liz Callaway recalls hearing their work in a presentation, she introduces an adorably comic bouncy number from their attempt to musicalize the film Bedazzled. (Alas, they neglected to get the soon-to-refused rights). Callaway cheerily chirps as a gal who "Never Really Knew the Guy," who was shy while working at the restaurant's grill ("The way he flipped those burgers, it was truly rare") and who addressed his suicide note to her ("A girl could get interested in a guy like that"). Flaherty is a just-right piano accompanist for this number and on "Raining," "Ballerina," "Something Beautiful," a rowdy, rap-like "Green Eggs and Ham" (Seussical) for Kecia Lewis, and with the crisply infectious instrumental strains of "Ragtime." Otherwise, the formidable music director Ted Sperling is at the keyboard. In the small band, Antoine Silverman and his violin are especially valuable, adding textures and depth. The never-produced Bedazzled is represented also by another cutie-pie number, "Close (But No Cigar)" nailed by Annaleigh Ashford and the man who's become one of the modern theatre's most appealing and magnetic men: Bobby Steggert. In "Larger Than Life" (My Favorite Year) he is heartbreaking and spot on with a young man's starry-eyed fantasies and movie memories. (Hear him lovingly sing the individual letters R.K.O. making them magical touchstones.)
While Dessa Rose gets only one acknowledgment (Kecia Lewis's fine and refined "White Milk and Red Blood"), the lauded Ragtime has the lion's share of focus. Steggert thrills with emphatic, dramatic zeal on "The Night That Goldman Spoke in Union Square," as he did in Ragtime's revival. He played Younger Brother in the revival of Ragtime and his revival castmates (the aforementioned dynamic Darrington and LaChanze) share honors parading the score's heavy hitters with the two leads from the first version, proving we can indeed triumphantly go "Back to Before" as Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell rekindle sparks. He also gets The Glorious Ones' powerful gem (its only representation) "I Was Here," and brings nicely restrained shading as well as majesty to it.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty make occasional appearances and bookend the endeavor, graciously and gratefully hosting with fairly amiable singing appearances and some tweaked lyrics. They're pictured with boxing gloves, a kind of nod to Rocky and a line of lyric which gives Nice Fighting You its title. And it's a nice reminder of the scope of the skills of these tunesmiths.. Or an introduction for newcomers to their work.