Leave it to a director like Alex Timbers (Tony nominee for Peter and the Starcatcher) to create some of the most exhilarating theatre on Broadway. It’s unanimous that the final fight in his musical version of Rocky is a total knockout, created with the help of a talented team, including set designer Christopher Barreca, projection designers Dan Scully and Pablo Molina, costume designer David Zinn, sound designer Peter Hylenski, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind.
As everyone roots for Rocky Balboa in his unexpected 15-round fight against Apollo Creed, the emotions of the 1976 Academy Award-winning film come to life in an expertly choreographed pugilistic ballet in a true boxing arena ambiance. "I think I was picked for the piece because it has a gritty reality, but there is also a sense of sentimentality to the story surrounded by urban grittiness," says Akerlind. "The ‘70s were a time when certain cities were down on their luck. Even for the romantic moments, we wanted to keep the rough and tumble way we live our lives."
Many of the scenes in Rocky could be considered almost monochromatic. "They begin with one, two, or three lights, used in a single gesture," Akerlind explains. "A scene starts in gray light, with a lack of color contrast. Monotone always gets responded to as gray, but the first scene is really a sweaty blue-green color, but it has been described as gray. I use a lot of color but not multiple colors at the same time, more like the light around us, which is pretty simple in its reality of color." One scene that stands out as monochrome is a dramatic moment when Balboa is running the streets of Philadelphia embraced by large, black-and-white projections of the elevated train tracks and buildings.
Rocky has moved into the Winter Garden Theatre, which Akerlind describes as "shallow and intimate, yet a blockbuster house," where hits like Cats and Mamma Mia enjoyed very long runs. "The intimate scenes in the first act wouldn’t have been so intimate in a larger house," notes the designer, who won a Tony for his painterly lighting of A Light In The Piazza. "In ‘Piazza,’ there was a big expansive floor, more like a dance space. In Rocky, you don’t see the floor as much. There is more complexity to the scenery in Rocky, which is more industrial and mechanical, a little like the original Sweeney Todd on Broadway. There is a painterly quality to the lighting, even with its grittiness."
Victor Seastone programmed the musical on an ETC Eos console, part of a lighting rig provided by PRG. The automated fixtures include Philips Vari-Lite VL3500Q—Akerlind says he likes his moving lights to be quiet, especially front of house—as well as VL3500 Wash FXs. "These get very hot. The color is really great," Akerlind adds. Four moving towers are on the set, loaded with lights, including VL2000s, two on each downstage tower and three on each upstage one.
Three trusses of stadium blinders use ETC Source Four PARs, "with a hood to make them look more like stadium lights, as part of a scenic effect," says Akerlind. "They make great transition lighting but don’t light the people or the scenery. There are not a lot of lights overhead, which suits my instinct of how to do things anyway, so I am simpatico to the paucity of positions and budget constraints."
One scene in which Akerlind’s painterly quality imbues the lighting takes place in the fight manager’s office, where tall walls split apart for a flashback to a fight with Rocky Marciano, as Rocky Balboa seeks inspiration from his hero to enter the ring one last time. Akerlind uses two VL3500Qs that light across the ring like shin-busters with GAM G380 Golden Tan, a warm chocolate color.
Read more in Ringmasters! Rocky Part Two.