Rocky the Musical is getting its Philly debut, but first, cheesesteaks

Gianna Yanelli (left), who portrays Adrian in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of ‘’Rocky, the Musical,’’ and Matthew Amira, who portrays Rocky, make cheesesteaks at Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Gianna Yanelli (left), who portrays Adrian in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of ‘’Rocky, the Musical,’’ and Matthew Amira, who portrays Rocky, make cheesesteaks at Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Rocky the Musical” will make its Philadelphia premiere at the Walnut Street Theatre next month.

The show made its Broadway debut in 2014, lasting six months on the Great White Way. It won a Tony award for set design but did not do as well as expected at the box office. Its investors did not recoup their reported $16.5 million investment in the show.

Since then no professional theater company in the United States has picked up Rocky the Musical. Now, the Walnut Street Theatre is preparing to open its 2022-2023 season with the musical. The Philadelphia-centric story of an underdog boxer and his girlfriend Adrian will make its hometown debut on October 4.

Rehearsals start next week. To get its leading actors acclimated to Philadelphia, the theater sent them down to Pat’s Steaks in South Philly to learn how to make a cheesesteak from owner Frank Olivieri.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Let me show you how to flip the meat,” said Olivieri, wielding a spatula over a griddle blanketed with sheets of thinly sliced rib eye.

“Ok. I’m scared,” said Gianna Yanelli, who plays Adrian.

Matthew Amira (left), who portrays Rocky in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of ‘’Rocky, the Musical,’’ and Gianna Yanelli, who portrays Adrian, make cheesesteaks at Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia under the direction of owner Frank Olivieri (second from right) and general manager. Tom Francano (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Yanelli was nervous, in part, because she used to live in Philadelphia – her aunt still lives nearby on Second Street – and Pat’s steaks is part of the fabric of life in South Philly.

“Drunken nights were here,” she said. “It was the best drunk food I’ve ever had.”

Yanelli is now vegetarian and no longer eats cheesesteaks, but did not hesitate to eagerly stack grilled and chopped steak into a roll.

“I can’t wait to smell like cheesesteak,” she said.

Gianna Yanelli (left), who portrays Adrian in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of ‘’Rocky, the Musical,’’ and Matthew Amira, who portrays Rocky, take turns punching a frozen ribeye in the meat room at Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Her co-star Matthew Amira tried his hand at it as well. The New York actor has a long history of visiting Philadelphia: he is the son of a University of Pennsylvania alumnus, Sid Amira, who was one of the stars of the Penn Quakers basketball team from 1961 – 1963.

“He was the original Philly sports hero for me,” said Amira. “We would always come [to Philly] and people would recognize him, and we would go to Pat’s and get steaks.”

Neither Amira nor Yanelli is based in Philadelphia. The duo went behind the counter at Pat’s to promote the show and work on the flavor of their character’s accents (which was never a Philadelphia accent to begin with, in the original film).

“Now, we need to work on the pronunciation of certain words,” offered Olivieri. “Like w-a-t-e-r.”

“Wooder, right?” said Yanelli. Olivieri approved.

Olivieri, however, did not approve of Amira when he admitted he had not yet run up the Art Museum steps.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I’ve eaten thousands of cheesesteaks,” said Olivieri, pointing to his own belly and then to Amira’s much less significant middle. “You look like you’re a lot more fit than I am. You gotta get up those steps.”

Tom Francano, general manager of Pat’s King of Steaks, spoons Cheez Whiz onto a sandwich, during a publicity stunt for ‘’Rocky, the Musical, ‘’ which will make its Philadelphia premiere at the Walnut Street Theatre. Pat’s will provide free cheesesteaks to the first 100 in-person ticket buyers. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Both Yanelli and Amira said playing Adrian and Rocky onstage in Philadelphia is the highlight of their careers.

“The moment I drove into Philly my heart rate went up to 180, because I was just, like, ‘Oh, no pressure,’ right?’,” said Amira. “I’m just an outsider coming in, telling the story that is so in the DNA of every Philadelphia person. So, yeah, a lot of pressure.”

Yanelli said her extended family intends to buy a block of a couple of dozen tickets. For some members of her family, it will be their first opportunity to see her perform on stage, anywhere.

“I haven’t actually lived full-time in Philly for like ten years,” she said. “All of my friends and family from growing up here get to come see me, which is not a luxury that always happens. To be able to represent being Italian in Philly in such an iconic show is beyond words.”

Frank Olivieri (right), owner of Pat’s King of Steaks, holds up a frozen ribeye for punches from Matthew Amira, who will portray Rocky in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of ‘’Rocky, the Musical.’’ (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Later, Olivieri led Amira across Wharton Street into Pat’s Steaks refrigerated storeroom, where large slabs of ribeye are kept and sliced. He held up raw meat so Amira could take a few swings at it, just like in the movie.

“Give me your best, Rock!” Oliveiri shouted at Amira.

Tickets for Rocky the Musical go on sale Monday, September 12. Pat’s Steaks will give away cheesesteaks to the first 100 in-person buyers at the Walnut Theatre.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal