Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia stages iconic love story in ‘Rocky: The Musical’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Rocky' at Toby's Dinner Theatre (Part 1)

Rocky’s trainer Mickey famously declared: “You’re gonna eat lightning and crap thunder!”

That’s not quite on the buffet menu at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, but you can savor the new production of “Rocky: The Musical” from March 26 through June 5.

Playwright Thomas Meehan adapts the show from Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 screenplay.

“Rocky Balboa, a small-town club fighter from Philadelphia working as a debt collector, gets a chance at the world heavyweight championship,” Associate Producer & Co-Director Mark Minnick told WTOP. “‘Rocky’ is not all about boxing. … It’s truly an underdog love story. … They realize that their love for each other is more important than any fight.”

Owner & Co-Director Toby Orenstein was serendipitously inspired to produce the show.

“In 2014, ‘Rocky’ opened on Broadway,” Minnick said. “The actors who played Rocky and Adrian on Broadway, Andy Karl and Margo Seibert, both worked at Toby’s in the early days of their careers. … Toby said, ‘One day, we’re going to do the show at Toby’s.'”

Fast forward to late 2020 when “Rocky” finally became available for community theaters.

“Music Theatre International … announced it was available for licensing,” Minnick said. “That same day, Toby left her apartment to go to the corner bakery and noticed TITLE Boxing Club. She picked up her phone and called me: ‘Mark! “Rocky” is available! I just walked by TITLE Boxing, Margot and Andy worked at Toby’s, it’s a sign! Call them now!'”

Soon, the cast began training at the boxing club in Columbia.

“These guys have been training for months,” Minnick said. “They’ve been up at 5:30 a.m. at TITLE Boxing on Wednesdays working their tails off. … They don’t just need to fight, they need to sing and act as well. That’s a hard package to find, but we found it. … The improvement has been incredible, working with our fight choreographer Justin Calhoun.”

Patrick Gover plays “The Italian Stallion” underdog Rocky Balboa.

“It’s cool not learning dance steps but learning boxing steps, which is so much fun,” Gover said. “This is such a fun role. …  I love this character, too. I could feel him when I saw the movie. It’s a great story and I’m having a ball playing him. … When I was looking up Philly accents, it occurred to me that it was kind of like a New York-Maryland sandwich.”

Lydia Gifford plays Adrian with a strong character arc of her own.

“She’s a victim of abuse,” Gifford said. “Her parents were abusive, her brother is abusive, she’s been told all her life that she’s nothing, she’ll never amount to anything. In the musical, she describes herself as a weed that keeps getting stepped on, but she just wants a chance to blossom. … Rocky is the only one to see her inner beauty and potential.”

Gerald Jordan plays his rival Apollo Creed, heavyweight champion of the world.

“He’s standing on top of the world and everyone knows it,” Jordan said. “The one thing he yearns for is a really good fight. It’s something he doesn’t think he can find, because no one can stand toe to toe with him. … Every time you step on stage you are expected to be the best … to capture that aura and push that character to their limit during the final fight.”

Rocky prepares with his grizzled trainer Mickey, played by Robert Biedermann.

“He’s been at Toby’s for a while,” Rocky said. “He’s a great guy. He was a Vietnam vet and he’s a cool guy. … Working together with him was great, he was giving me a lot of great advice and compliments. He’s a really great guy off the stage and on the stage.”

How is it all brought to life visually?

“Our scenic designer has built a boxing ring,” Minnick said. “Our intimate in-the-round setting is perfect. The audience will sit 360 [degrees] around the ring. … It is a 15-round fight. Now, we don’t sit through 15 rounds, there’s a lot of stage artistry and visual effects.”

The musical features a songbook by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) from Bill Conti’s theme, voted one of the American Film Institute’s Top 25 Movie Scores.

“‘Eye of the Tiger’ is weaved into a big group number,” Adrian said. “‘Gotta Fly Now’ is obviously incorporated. There’s a stage adaptation of that whole training montage. You see the skyline of Philly. … The whole score is of that era, kind of rock-influenced, a little pop-influenced. Rocky has lots of solos, Adrian has a couple solos, Apollo has a great solo.”

While the movie earned 10 Oscar nominations and won three (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing), the Broadway adaptation wasn’t nearly as successful, earning four Tony nominations (Best Actor, Best Choreography, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design). However, the space inside Toby’s is uniquely suited for this particular production.

“On Broadway, so much of the show is between Rocky and Adrian that the huge Winter Garden Theatre didn’t do any favors for the intimacy of these scenes,” Minnick said. “Watching the intimacy of these scenes at Toby’s where you are literally 10-15 feet away from the actors really knocks it home. … It’s really going to be something special.”

There’s just one final thing to say: “Yo, Toby! You did it!”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Rocky' at Toby's Dinner Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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