Yeah, Philly’s tough, takes a punch and keeps on fighting — bleeding, busted, but never giving up, not on itself, and not on love. Resilient? Absolutely.
No one needs an advanced degree in film to understand why Rocky, the story of an underdog boxer who trained at the Italian Market and made the most of his big break, resonates here.
How about another underdog story? A high school theater program will be the first theater in the world to stage a post-Broadway premiere of Rocky.
Not a professional theater. No equity actors. No big-name directors.
Instead: Grit. Persistence. A lucky break. And in the way that things work in Philadelphia — connections.
“Rocky has been an inspiration for me as an underdog figure,” said Aidan Kinniry, the Harry S Truman High School senior who will play Rocky at the Bristol Township high school in Levittown on March 3, 4, and 5. “I’ve come from a lot of rough situations.
“My family and I, we’ve seen it all,” the 17-year-old said. “We’ve overcome that and stayed together. We’re a tough bunch.
“Rocky encompasses all of that for me.”
Let’s start with the movie, released in 1976, which Kinniry figures he’s seen at least 70 times. Sylvester Stallone played a big-hearted, working-class Italian American club boxer from Philadelphia who collected debts for a loan shark. Produced for under $1 million, the movie earned $225 million in global box office receipts, three Academy Awards, and went on to spawn eight sequels.
As a play, Rocky should have been a contender on Broadway, but was knocked out after only five months due to mixed reviews and insufficient box office sales.
Traveling to Manhattan for one of Rocky’s 188 performances in 2014 were Lou Volpe and Tracey Gatte. Volpe, a retired Truman teacher, started the school’s theater program and turned it into such a powerhouse that it became the subject of a book written by former Philadelphia journalist Michael Sokolove.
In turn, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town and the Magic of Theater, inspired an NBC television series, Rise, which ran for one season in 2018.
Gatte was Volpe’s second-in-command and when he retired, she took over. From the moment she and Volpe saw the play, she knew she wanted to bring it to Truman. “Since then,” she said, “I’ve been asking and asking and asking,” bugging the licensing house (successfully) and Stallone (no response).
Truman has theater cred. It’s handled the first U.S. high school productions of Les Miz, Rent, Honeymoon in Vegas, Spring Awakening, and Kinky Boots. But the rights to Rocky simply weren’t being released.
Once they were, it was clear that Rocky had to open in Philly. Obvious.
The licensing house awarded the rights for Rocky’s first post-Broadway world premiere to Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, which planned to use it to launch its 2020-21 season. Truman would be the first high school to have it, with its show opening in March 2022.
That was the plan. But nobody planned for COVID-19, and as the pandemic settled in, Walnut decided to move Rocky to start next year’s season in September 2022.
And that’s how Truman, not the Walnut, came to land the world premiere.
“Everybody in this room understands the responsibility and honor of being the first school to do it,” Kinniry said, before he went on stage to practice boxing during a recent rehearsal. “I hope I get to see it at the Walnut.”
The Walnut crew wishes the Truman crew the best of luck on its performance.
“It’s fantastic that the Greater Philadelphia theater community will get to tell and experience this uniquely Philadelphian story, both in educational and professional levels, this year,” Bernard Havard, president and producing artistic director of the Walnut, said in a statement.
Cheering in the Truman audience will be Jenny Lee Stern, an actor from Doylestown who was part of the Rocky Broadway cast. She played Joanne, a friend to Adrian — the woman Rocky loved. And when Rocky opens at the Walnut, Stern will be in that cast as well.
When Stern auditioned for the part in New York, she was going through a divorce and was the exhausted mother of two toddlers. “I just sunk into my Philly accent and my Philly mannerisms, and it worked,” she said. In New York, she prodded the directors to push the rest of the cast to be more Philly-like but didn’t make much headway.
Stern’s mother is friends with a friend of Gatte’s. Gatte invited Stern to rehearsals. “I was blown away,” Stern said. “They have these Philly accents and attitudes without trying. You don’t have to teach them anything.
“The kids playing Rocky and Apollo were off the charts. They were the best,” she said.
“I loved watching the girl playing Joanne,” Stern said, referring to Meredith Trzaskawka, 16, a junior, who wants to build a career in musical theater. “To see what she did versus what I did, it was completely different from how I played the role. I may have to steal some of it; it was so brilliant.”
Last Tuesday, a week from dress rehearsal, the cast of 40 gathered in the auditorium named after Lou Volpe. On stage, Justin Litz, an amateur heavyweight boxer, put the actors through their moves.
Kinniry took punch after punch, holding up padded gloves as he fended off blows from Wa’kee Giddens, who plays Dipper and understudies for Apollo — Rocky’s more polished opponent. Jab, hook, cross, uppercut — dancing forward and back on their feet, Kinniry and Giddens looked like pros.
“They’re going to be tired tonight,” Gatte said.
Gatte tapped into Litz’s gym in nearby Bristol Borough for help teaching the boxers the moves they’d need on stage.
More connections: Litz trains at Witherspoon Boxing & Fitness, owned by Tim Witherspoon Jr., whose son Tim 3rd, 16, attends Truman. Witherspoon Jr., himself a former Pennsylvania Golden Glove champion, appeared as an extra in Creed, one of the Rocky sequels. But most importantly, Tim’s father, boxer Tim Witherspoon Sr., believes his life partly inspired the movie. Like Rocky, Witherspoon grew up in Philadelphia. Unlike Rocky, Witherspoon, who was a regular sparring partner for Muhammad Ali, went on to become a two-time world heavyweight champion. Stallone had invited Witherspoon Sr. to join him on a red carpet at one of the movie premieres.
Witherspoon Jr. gave the actor-boxers props. “I watched some of their rehearsals,” Witherspoon said. “I’m proud of them. I think they are going to do a good job.”
As for Truman landing the world premiere, “anytime you are the first to do something, there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “But just like boxing, if there’s no risk, there’s no reward.”
That’s why, Witherspoon said, Rocky is the perfect play for high schoolers — or for anybody. “It teaches kids that anyone can achieve anything and can overcome any adversity.”
Shows at 7:30 p.m. March 3, 4, 5, and 1 p.m. March 5, Lou Volpe Auditorium, Harry S Truman High School, 3001 Green Lane, Levittown. For tickets, information https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/57821. Masks optional.