If theatre-goers can put aside whatever feelings they may have about what has been transpiring south of the border since November 2016, and then suspend their disbelief about the tarnished American Dream, Rocky: The Musical, now playing at the Huron Country Playhouse until August 3, is perfect summer theatre.
Based on the iconic 1976 Academy Award-winning movie Rocky (now in its seventh incarnation) written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, the play is making its Canadian premiere at the Drayton Entertainment theatres.
Indeed, the play encourages you to leave behind Trump’s divisive America and take a time-trip back to 1976 Philadelphia with its garish costumes, stark urban sets, music, seedy boxing gyms, and even seedier characters.
Unless you have been completely cut off from North American pop culture for the past 43 years, the play’s plot is all too familiar and does not require much description here. It’s a classic rags-to-riches story caught up in the so-called American Dream.
The play’s antagonist, Rocky Balboa portrayed by Alex Kelly, is a down and out Philadelphia boxer, frequenting Micky’s Gym and living in a one-room dishevelled apartment. He makes his living collecting money for a menacing local loan-shark.
When we first see him onstage, he is engaged in what he later refers to as a “ham and eggs” boxing match against an equally uninspiring opponent. Emerging as the victor, he earns $60 for his efforts and heads for his locker seeking an after-match cigarette.
From this point on we are introduced to the play’s remaining major supporting characters including Mickey, his crusty Manager, portrayed convincingly by Lee MacDougall, Adrian, his shy and fragile girlfriend, portrayed deliciously by Drayton Entertainment favourite Jayme Armstrong (last seen as Millie in this year’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Paulie, Adrian’s overprotective alcoholic brother played by another Drayton favourite Aaron Walpole, who brings an abrasive, but sensitive interpretation to the role.
Christopher James, making his Drayton debut, is perfect as the arrogant and condescending Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed.
The three Pet Store girls, played by Daphne Moens, Marianne McCord and Jacquelyn French, add an ideal amount of comic relief throughout the play.
Again, most patrons will know that, as a result of a series of serendipitous events, the underdog Rocky gets the opportunity to box Apollo Creed for the Championship on January 1, 1976, the year of America’s Bi-Centennial.
While he prepares to go the distance in the bout, Rocky’s relationship with Adrian turns romantic and he sorts out his ambiguous relationships with Mickey and Paulie.
To be sure, the play’s culminating boxing match between Rocky and Apollo is what everything has been leading to – and Director Alex Mustakas pulls out all the stops for the finale.
The match takes place on a full-sized boxing ring and selected audience members are escorted on to the stage to watch the match in bleacher-style seats. The boxers enter the stage from the back of the theatre with flashing lights and much fanfare, giving the audience the impression it is witnessing a real boxing match.
The match itself is brilliantly choreographed, a joint effort between Fight Director Joe Bostick and Mustakas, with cheering and ring announcer and Round Girls.
The audience feels the boxers’ exhaustion and pain as the bout marches on to the pivotal 15th Round when Balboa and Creed collapse into each other’s arms. A split decision is announced, and Creed is announced the winner.
Rocky has gone the distance, won $150,000 and got his girl.
Alex Kelly deserves many kudos for his performance. In lesser hands, Rocky could have been a walking, grunting cliché. Kelly brings the necessary swagger, Stallone-like guttural voice and sensitivity to the role.
Jayme Armstrong’s Adrian emerges as a strong stand-by-your man woman who comes out of her self-imposed shell during the play.
The chemistry between Kelly and Armstrong on stage is electric and their vocal duets are moving.
Strains of the Rocky Theme and Glass Tiger’s Eye of the Tiger are heard throughout the play, while its musical numbers propel the story along quite adequately. Music Director Michael Lerner and the pit band capture the essence of the play’s themes and characters.
Kudos to Set Designer Brian Dudkiewicz and Costume Designer Adrienne Pink for transporting the audience back to 1976.
In the end, Rocky: The Musical is about hope, second chances, love and redemption. In these days of political divisiveness and cynicism, it is a welcome 2 hours of escapist entertainment.
Catch it before it’s gone!
Rick Young, July 19, 2019