Rocky Musical Goes The Distance At Walnut Street Theatre

Photo by Mark Garvin

The highly anticipated Broadway musical version of ROCKY, a uniquely Philly saga, made its triumphant premiere at Walnut Street Theatre (WST), opening its 214th season. Directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford, the production began previews on October 4, opened on October 12, and continues through October 30, 2022. Read on for more information about this exciting show, including my thoughts on the opening night performance.

”Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to go from loan shark enforcer to heavyweight titleholder, but does this ultimate underdog have what it takes? Based on the MGM/United Artists Academy Award-winning motion picture of the same name, ROCKY features new musical numbers and favorites, including “Eye of the Tige” and “Gonna Fly Now.” ROCKY, the Musical is a beautiful love story and a heart-stopping, knock-out theatrical experience for everyone brave enough to follow their dreams.“Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to go from loan shark enforcer to heavyweight titleholder, but does this ultimate underdog have what it takes? Based on the MGM/United Artists Academy Award-winning motion picture of the same name, ROCKY features new musical numbers and favorites, including “Eye of the Tiger” and “Gonna Fly Now.” ROCKY, the Musical is a beautiful love story and a heart-stopping, knock-out theatrical experience for everyone brave enough to follow their dreams.

Rocky’s grit and determination exemplify Philadelphia and its people. The deep connection between Rocky and Philadelphia has been acknowledged by Sylvester Stallone, who created the classic fighter and co-wrote the book for this new iteration of Rocky’s story.“It’s a city that really was built for this kind of character… gritty yet historical, it’s just that kind of tough place,” said Stallone.

The Walnut’s all-new production features a cast of over 23 and a live orchestra; it has been updated for Philadelphia from the 2012 premiere in Germany and the subsequent Broadway production in 2014. Rocky, the Musical has a book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone and was adapted from Stallone’s screenplay. Adding to the classic music is a new score created by Tony Award-winning writer Lynn Ahrens with music by Tony and Grammy Award Winner Stephen Flaherty. 

Award-winning Choreographer and Director Richard Stafford returns to the Walnut for his 17th production. His previous Walnut credits include directing and choreographing Beehive – The 60’s Musical, Legally Blonde, Mamma Mia!, Sister ActMemphis, Curtains, Cats, and more, as well as choreographing La Vie en Blue, Evita, and La Cage Aux Folles. On Broadway, Stafford was the choreographer for In My Life (Music Box Theatre), associate choreographer for Aspects of Love, and dance supervisor for Cats. In New York, he also worked as director and choreographer for Los Elementos (2017) and Pygmalion (2018) at New York City Opera. His work has been seen at regional theatres across the country, including North Carolina Theatre, North Shore Music Theatre, Sacramento Music Circus, Westchester Broadway Theatre, and more. Chris Burcheri returns for his third season as the Walnut’s music director. During the 2021-2022 season, Burcheri took the podium as music director for Beehive, The Little Mermaid, and Always…Patsy Cline.

Making his Walnut Street Theatre debut as the South Philly small-time boxer Rocky Balboa is Matthew Amira. Amira’s theatre credits include Jersey Boys: (Ogunquit Playhouse, Fulton Theatre, Maine State Music Theatre as Nick Massi. Broadway National Tour: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (Donnie, Nick/Low Righteous Brother), Dirty Dancing (Robbie Gould). South Philly native Gianna Yanelli returns to the Walnut, where she made her professional debut in Fiddler on the Roof, this time playing Adrian Pennino. Yanelli’s theatre credits include Mean Girls on Broadway (Ensemble/Janis) and Mystic Pizza (Jojo). Her TV credits include Law and Order: SVU, SNL, and Seth Myers. She is an avid Philadelphia Eagles fan. Playing the role of the 1975 heavyweight boxing world champion, Apollo Creed, is Walnut veteran Nichalas L. Parker, a former Walnut Street Theatre acting apprentice. Parker’s WST credits include Shrek The Musical, Civil War Voices, A Funny Thing Happened…, and more. Walnut regular Bill Van Horn will play the former bantamweight fighter turned trainer Mickey Goldmill. Van Horn’s recent WST appearances include The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Little Mermaid, and A Woman of No Importance along with directing Civil War Voices, The Curious Incident…, and The Glass Menagerie. Playing his 37th role at the Walnut is self-described “Philly Boy” Fran Prisco as Adrian’s brother Paulie. Prisco’s Walnut credits include The Best Man, Shrek, and Young Frankenstein.

WST veteran Rebecca Robbins (Always…Patsy Cline, The Little Mermaid) is returning as Gloria. Audiences will recognize Jenny Lee Stern, who plays Angie, from her starring role in last season’s production of Always…Patsy Cline. Stern also originated the role of Joanne in the Broadway premiere of Rocky, the Musical. Karissa Harris (Beehive) makes her return to the Walnut stage as Joanne and in the ensemble. Jake Blouch, playing Gazzo and Tom Crosetti, is back at the Walnut, having last been seen in the Walnut’s production of Meteor Shower. Making this his 25th production at the Walnut is local actor Ben Dibble, who will be playing the roles of Newscaster Miles Jergens, and the Referee. Audiences will most recently recognize Dibble as Chef Louis in last season’s underwater hit, The Little Mermaid.

Photo by Mark Garvin

Dana Orange (The Little Mermaid, Shrek) is returning to the Walnut to play the roles of Mike and Apollo’s Manager. Mark Donaldson (The Little Mermaid, Shrek) returns as Dipper, First Cameraman, and as the Doctor. Kristyn Pope (Beehive – The ’60s Musical, Legally Blonde) returns in the ensemble and will also be the show’s Associate Choreographer. Also returning to the Walnut are cast members Adam Mandala (The Little Mermaid), Sabrina Profitt (Saturday Night Fever), and Jessie Jones (The Little Mermaid) who will take the roles of Buddy, Shirley, and Bob Dunphy, respectively. Bonnie Kelly (The Little Mermaid, Beehive) and Scott Langdon (Blithe Spirit) return as ensemble members. Daniel Miller will take the role of Spider Rico in his WST debut while also understudying the role of Rocky. Also making their debut in the ensemble are Jarret Martin and Sierra Wilson.

Bringing boxing authenticity to this heart-stopping show is Boxing Consultant and Philadelphia native Maleek Jackson. Jackson is the founder of Northern Liberties’ Maleek Jackson Fitness Gym and the Azzim Dukes Initiative, an anti-gun violence and nonviolence program for inner-city and income-restricted Philadelphia kids. Scenic Designer Roman Tatarowicz (Blithe Spirit, The Best Man, A Woman of No Importance) makes his WST return to capture the authentic Philly feel. Tatarowicz will be joined by returning Lighting Designer Julie Duro (Grease) and Sound Designer Ed Chapman (The Little Mermaid, Shrek). Costume Designer Mary Folino (Beehive, Shrek, Young Frankenstein) will give the characters onstage the signature 70’s South Philly look.

ROCKY, the Musical runs at the Walnut from October 4 through October 30, 2022. Open captioning will be available for the Sunday, October 23, 7 pm performance, and ASL interpretation is available for the Thursday, October 13, 8 pm performance. This production is sponsored by CBIZ, with support from Ivy Rehab, Faegre Drinker, Independence Blue Cross, and Pat’s King of Steaks. Media Sponsors are 6ABC, Metro Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Inquirer. For tickets and information, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787. Tickets are also available online 24/7 by visiting or

My Thoughts

I’m a lifelong Rocky fan. I’ve owned and watched the films my entire life, and I’m a native of Philadelphia, a gritty underdog city that the timeless character Rocky Balboa personifies. My wife and I saw Rocky, the musical on Broadway several years ago. It was a last-minute decision, and we were both blown away by how good the show was. It could have easily been a disaster, yet the story translated to the stage in a way I couldn’t have expected, and the music was just as captivating. So, when I heard that Rocky was coming to the Walnut Street Theatre in Philly, I knew we had to go. How could we not?! There is no better place to see Rocky, the musical than in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theatre.

Photo by Mark Garvin

My wife and I had our son a little over a month ago. Seeing Rocky was our first date night since he was born, and it was the longest time we’d been away from him. I saw it as a much-needed break, and we already knew it would be a fantastic show because we saw it in New York.

As expected, the Walnut Street Theatre served up a knockout production of Rocky. The cast was phenomenal, with each member bringing a distinct and powerful voice to the dialogue and music. Matthew Amira as Rocky, Gianna Yanelli as Adrian, and Nichalas L. Parker as Apollo stole the show. As the most essential roles to cast for, these exceptional actors made it so I could easily suspend my disbelief and get wrapped up in the world of Rocky immediately. Being part of a crowd going wild for a set of stairs (i.e., “The Rocky Steps”) and Rocky drinking raw eggs is something everyone should experience. The crowd’s electricity made for an even more enjoyable show, giving it a big-fight feel.

Following the curtain call, my wife and I exited the building, stepping into a crisp fall night with street musicians skillfully playing Bill Conti’s Rocky score. Everyone around us was smiling because they were filled with the joy and inspiration imbued in Rocky, the musical. This production was supposed to run at the Walnut Street Theatre three years ago; COVID put those plans on the ropes. I’m thrilled it finally arrived because it was well worth the wait. Rocky, the musical is a top-rate contender and the perfect way to kick off the Walnut Street Theatre’s 214th season. Buy your tickets now to see this sensational show before it’s gone.

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