By Mark Dreisonstok
The Sylvester Stallone film “Rocky” was a sensation in 1976, spawning a number of successful sequels. At “Rocky” and “Rocky II,” audiences cried, shouted, and cheered: “When Rocky won the fight in the second movie, people in the packed theatre were standing and cheering like it was real life. I have never seen that again!” said one eyewitness. These were not boxing fans, but rather people from a broad spectrum of life who identified with Rocky Balboa, a man who simply wished for a little respect and the certainty that he was not a loser.
In the hands of directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, “Rocky: The Musical” once again lets its everyman hero shine, broadening this to include not only one man’s heroic struggle, but also how his struggle helps him and those around him to (re-)discover the humanity of love and human connection.
Patrick Gover stars as Rocky, conveying the character’s determination in both action and song. He is especially effective in montage training scenes conveying Rocky’s physicality through running, skipping rope, and punching a massive slab of meat as he trains for his boxing match. Gerald Jordan plays Rocky’s more experienced rival, Apollo Creed, to perfection, conveying him not as a generic opponent, but as a sympathetic character with his own heroic qualities. As unlikely as it sounds, the boxing pair harmonize brilliantly in the song “Southside Celebrity.”
Lydia Gifford as Adrian is equally effective as a shy shopkeeper who becomes more self-assured as she becomes a sustaining force for Rocky. The singer-actress has a wonderful performance in “Raining,” a folk-rock piece which showcases both her poignant vocal with soft and powerful qualities. The song is also symbolic, for the character comes out of the rain and into her own “Happiness,” also a leading song of Rocky in which she duets beautifully with Rocky.
A welcome presence in the show is Robert Biedermann as Mickey, a former fighter who “never had a wife, never had a son” yet now serves as trainer and father figure to the lonely Rocky. Mr. Biedermann, who is also the witty warm-up host before the show, distinguishes himself in the song “In the Ring,” bringing out the depths of his character as the fighter who has devoted his life to the sport of boxing.
While Toby’s is in Columbia, Maryland, several in the show are veterans of the Falls Church stage. Ryan Sellars, who plays Rocky’s early opponent Spider Rico, has performed with Falls Church’s Creative Cauldron theatre company, as has Marykate Brouillet, who portrays shop-girl Joanne and also an “Apollo Girl” or Apollo Creed groupie. She sings and acts wonderfully and appeared in Creative Cauldron’s “Nevermore,” telling the Falls Church News-Press that although she lives in the Columbia area, she finds it pure joy coming to perform with the Cauldron. Patricia Targete, who understudies several parts in “Rocky,” has also choreographed musicals at George Marshall High School.
Toby’s Dinner and Show is a “theatre in the round” where the audience surrounds the central stage. This works especially well for this production, in which the audience is periodically transformed into spectators at a boxing match. The staging, which interleaves stylized boxing with “special effects” (fast motion, slow motion, and photo freeze frames) splendidly conveys the excitement of the ring, a testament to the combined talents of fight choreographer Justin Calhoun, lighting designer Lynn Joslin, scenic designer David A. Hopkins, and musical director Ross Scott Rawlings. On the point of music, the signature theme from “Rocky,” “Gonna Fly Now,” is heard in the fight scene between Rocky and Apollo Creed..
Many of our current movie blockbusters are now about superheroes and cosmic mega-battles. “Rocky: The Musical” allows us to revisit an ordinary human hero from the 1970’s in updated form. Toby’s “Rocky” is not, however, simply a trip down memory lane. Rather, the show invites us to follow Rocky’s path of pursuing our dreams in the face of adversity, while being fully engaged with others – a message sorely needed in the world of 2022. “Rocky the Musical” runs through June 5. For further information, please visit: Toby’s Dinner Theatre – Dinner & Show (tobysdinnertheatre.com)