“Rizzo,” a stage adaptation of Paolantonio’s book, becomes riveting hit in Philly

ESPN's Sal Paolantonio (center) speaks with playwright Bruce Graham (right) and Theatre Exile founder Joe Canuso (left) as they're being interviewed by 6ABC in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Sal Paolantonio)
ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio (center) speaks with playwright Bruce Graham (right) and Theatre Exile founder Joe Canuso (left) as they’re being interviewed by 6ABC in Philadelphia.
(Photo courtesy of Sal Paolantonio)

The stage adaptation of Sal Paolantonio’s best-selling biography of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo debuted Oct. 21. It has received rave reviews and is a critically-acclaimed hit.

The play has won good reviews.
The play has won good reviews.

Two years ago, Paolantonio spoke with Front Row about the book, “Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America,” and how the rights had just been purchased so it could be adapted into a play.

The production continues through Nov. 8 at Philadelphia’s Theatre Exile. Front Row caught up with ESPN’s longtime national correspondent to learn more about the play, his experience working with accomplished playwright Bruce Graham, and more.

How have you been involved the past couple of years as the play was being developed?
I have been a script consultant and I attended a reading this summer and answered the actors’ questions about Rizzo – who he was, why he was so important to urban American politics and Philadelphia. That first reading gave me chills, hearing my words, which I wrote 22 years ago, come to life for the first time.

I also met with Damon Bonetti, a young Philadelphia actor who plays “the reporter,” a composite character loosely based on me. But my approach all along has been that I wanted playwright Bruce Graham to have his artistic vision for this project. So when asked, I got involved. Otherwise, it was hands off.

Paolantonio discusses the considerations in casting Rizzo, the title character:
Rizzo wore a size 54 Long suit. Size mattered here. That’s why Scott Greer is perfect for this role. Scott is a well-known and highly acclaimed stage actor in Philadelphia. He’s got a booming voice and larger-than-life presence. He knows the city. He’s done his homework. In this play, he’s a revelation.

All the actors are great, especially Akeem Davis, the only African-American in the show. Akeem plays both Cecil B. Moore – the North Philadelphia lawyer who fought Rizzo and organized the political opposition to him – and Jim Turner, the ex-Marine who was Rizzo’s bodyguard. Akeem is a powerful young actor who both embodies and propels the central theme of the play: That to understand Rizzo’s relevance, you must understand the many facets of his character and nature.

How was the experience of working with Graham, who did the sports-themed “Any Given Monday,” off-Broadway in New York, among other projects?
Frank Rizzo’s whole life, spanning 70 years as cop, police commissioner, mayor and politician, was theater. Bringing him to the stage was a nearly impossible task, but Bruce pulled it off.

He’s a brilliant, dynamic playwright. His play is not only about the complex character of Frank Rizzo, it’s about the torment of a city, the upheaval of the ‘60s and ‘70s in urban America, race relations, politics, the heritage of Italian-Americans in the 20th century – all woven together in a powerful two-hour performance.

How was opening night?
Before opening night, I attended a preview with my oldest daughter, Zoe, who was a child actress, singer and dancer. We’re theater buddies. When we walked up to the theater and saw the marquee for the first time, she said to me, “I was 10 years old when the Rizzo biography was published. Now, I’m married with a baby, 22 years later, the book is still having an impact.” That was cool.

But what really got me was seeing Scott and Damon, Rizzo and the reporter, interacting on stage. It is an important part of the show, because Damon often breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience. It was like me talking to me. Surreal.

How has the play been received in Philadelphia?
It has been a smash hit. Sold out. Standing ovations. The reviews have been universally positive. Even the Philadelphia Inquirer, my old newspaper, which never endorsed Rizzo, loved the play. We are already talking about another production in a larger theater in 2016.



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