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I was five when Rocky was first released in 1976. I didn’t see the original until years later, but I grew up alongside the movie franchise, running up the Art Museum steps alongside my sports-obsessed nephews when they were kids. Today, the film inspires a mix of nostalgia, criticism, and curiosity in me, all of which I brought to opening night of the Walnut’s season opener, Rocky the Musical.
I’m not a sports fan, and especially dislike boxing, despite learning a lot about it when writing the biography of my great-uncle Mace Bugen (as a boxing-obsessed teenager during the Great Depression, he snuck away from home to meet Joe Louis at his first professional fight). But I do appreciate Rocky, the cinematic archetype brought to life by Sylvester Stallone, whose fight to play the title role mirrored his character’s underdog grit and determination. I even have “The Eye of the Tiger” on my workout playlist (by working out, I mean power-walking with my Saluki Odin).
Recently, I rewatched the original Rocky with my teenage kid and we both felt like much of the content was dated. In the scene where Rocky brings Adrian back to his apartment for the first time, we could feel her discomfort and his pressure on her. Current conversations about consent bring an important new awareness to this kind of moment.
Strong cast for the Philly premiere
I hadn’t remembered that Stallone had adapted his Rocky screenplay into a musical; the book is co-written by Stallone and Thomas Meehan, with a score by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. It was a success in its initial launch in Germany, but only lasted on Broadway for 188 performances. The Walnut’s production is the musical’s Philadelphia premiere and it’s not a surprise that a show trading in nostalgia and predictability found its way there.
The cast—both the leads and the ensemble—of this production are outstanding and bring immense energy to the stage. Matthew Amira as Rocky is not a Stallone impersonator: he finds real vulnerability and heart in his portrayal. He’s an athletic performer, and his jump-rope moves, pushups, and punches are masterful choreography (director Richard Stafford also choreographs). Nichalas L. Parker as Apollo Creed also moves beyond the character’s potential stereotypes and brings an electrifying energy whenever he enters the stage.
My favorite performer of the night was Gianna Yanelli, whose multi-dimensional Adrian takes us deeper into the inner life of her character than what we get in her film version. The one memorable original song from the score is Adrian’s haunting ballad, “Raining.” Its lyrics offer an invitation to better understand the childhood forces that caused Adrian’s withdrawal into what is referred to as “shyness.”
Pulls me back to everything I've ever known
Papa's sudden rages, mama turned to stone
Praying for Saint Anthony to come and make things right
You don't look up and you don't talk back and your odds are ten to none
Like a weed that grows from a pavement crack to the patch of sun
You hide yourself in a tiny space as the voices rise
And you go some place where no one ever cries
Iconic moments onstage
Rocky the Musical is full of the splash and energy and fun that we expect it to contain: great 70s costumes and big dance numbers. It's got magical moving sets featuring the pet shop’s aquariums, Rocky’s tiny apartment, and even the boxing ring itself, where we as audience members get to sit ringside while Creed and Balboa battle to the end of 15 rounds. In a moment of thrilling choreography, Adrian even gets to stumble on ice skates, then find her footing across the stage as ice rink.
It’s got all of the iconic movie moments, too. When Rocky makes his early morning elixir of raw eggs, there’s a collective, audible gasp-groan as he drinks. The audience can fully enter the theatrical illusion because we’re all in on its cinematic allusions. Those moments really played with a Philadelphia audience.
Stuck in the 70s?
The musical takes us to 1976 Philly and stays there, rather than offering us the opportunity to bring a fresh and expanded awareness to these characters. The material could really benefit from an update or revision. What if Rocky and Adrian and Apollo Creed had more expanded choices? What if Adrian had wanted to be a vet-tech or a veterinarian? What if the Philly school system provided mentors to kids like Rocky who are struggling academically? What if Creed had options for achieving success besides putting himself in the violence of the ring? Of course, exploring these thought-provoking questions would create a different kind of show, and not the one that Stallone created.
Rocky the Musical is the kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that the Walnut is known for. Board chair Scott Rankin, who praised the 40-year tenure of president and producing artistic director Bernard Havard in his opening-night curtain speech, emphasized how Havard has grown the Walnut’s subscription base to the largest in the country. That is certainly an accomplishment if a theater’s goal is to get butts in the seats, but it doesn’t address the voices of theater artists in our community who have demanded more equitable treatment from the theater. The speech felt to me like a cultish celebration of Havard, and made me wonder whether anyone on the board has dared to challenge him around his lack of engagement with the local community.
Fortunately, there are plenty of theaters here in the city where you will find real underdogs, artists made of resilience and grit who are bringing their expansive visions to life even as they face the ever-challenging contender of diminished funding for the arts.
What, When, Where
Rocky the Musical. Book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; directed by Richard Stafford. Based on the MGM/United Artists Motion Picture. $25-$117. Through November 6, 2022, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Masks are not required inside the theater.
Walnut Street Theatre has ADA-compliant water fountains and accessible restrooms on its orchestra level. Wheelchair and companion seating are available online; look for the ADA icon on the Walnut’s seating map.
The Walnut offers assisted listening devices for main stage performances with loop technology. Infrared hearing enhancers are available in the lobby on a first-come, first-served basis; quantities are limited. If you require assistance or to learn more about programs and services, call the theater at (215) 574-3550.
Open captioning for Rocky the Musical will be available during the 7pm performance on Sunday, October 23.
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