Toby Orenstein couldn’t help herself. She knew her theater company, Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, could play it safe and attract a large audience by producing crowd pleasers such as “Fiddler on the Roof” or “The Sound of Music.”
Yet, she chose to put on “Rocky: The Musical,” a show with complicated themes.
“I love a challenge,” Orenstein, 85, said. “We all have something to prove.”
Based on the Oscar-winning movie, “Rocky” tells the story of small-time boxer, Rocky Balboa, and the training he undergoes to take on heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed. While the fighting is crucial to the story, the show has many themes, Orenstein said.
“Boxing is in it, but it is not what it is about,” Orenstein said. “What do we want to do in life? You make a goal and work so hard to get it.”
She noted the various relationships in the show, especially between Adrian and Rocky.
“The romance is so tender and touching,” Orenstein said. “Adrian was abused and looked down upon. All have something to prove and are afraid of relationships.”
The musical opened on Broadway in 2014 and though it did not do well in New York, Orenstein saw its potential. She also worked with the Broadway show’s two main leads and invited them to the Columbia show.
Orenstein said many producers are reluctant to do the show because of the boxing element: “It takes a village of people to believe it can be done.”
Mark Minnick, associate producer, was not convinced at first.
“Toby was thrilled to get the title,” Minnick said. “I had hesitations. It had new, challenging elements.”
Eight of the show’s 20 cast members were sent to work with Harry King, owner of Title Boxing Club in Columbia.
“The first thing [Orenstein] asked me was ‘Can you sing?’” said King, laughing.
During many early morning workouts, King taught the cast members, including Patrick Gover (Rocky) and Gerald Jordan (Apollo) the ins and outs of boxing, from how to move their body to throwing a punch and proper footwork.
Orenstein admits that at the first rehearsals, “it looked like they were punching the hell out of each other.”
“I was definitely nervous,” Gover admitted. “We train every day.”
King’s training, along with some “theater magic” and proper lighting, really bring the fight to life, all agreed.
“Safety is key and a lot of trust,” Jordan said. “We developed a rhythm. It is a well-choreographed dance at the end of the day.”
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Jordan is quick to point out, however, that he thinks “Rocky” is 95% about relationships and 5% about boxing.
“The boxing bits are great, even phenomenal,” Jordan said. “It is a heartfelt story.”
King agreed. While he was impressed with how the company created a realistic boxing ring and with the boxing scenes, he was surprised to discover boxing wasn’t the show’s main focus.
“You don’t think about the storyline underneath,” King said. “You think it is all about boxing, but if you look deeper, it’s not what this is about.”
While there are no showstopper songs, the musical does include Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the movie franchise’s theme song, Billy Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.”
“People have loved it,” Minnick said. “It is very engaging and funny. It is a lot more than people expect.”
“Rocky: The Musical” will be performed through June 5 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia.