Happy Days: The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 30, 2007
Sometimes theatre doesn't need to be anything more than good, clean fun that brings a smile to one's face. Happy Days: The Musical, the new tuner penned by TV and film comedy veteran Garry Marshall and pop songwriter Paul Williams, is a joyous reminder of that: it bubbles over with good will and positivity. It also puts theatergoers on alert that Paper Mill Playhouse, a long-standing regional institution that was in danger of permanently closing its doors earlier this year, is back in business with an exuberant vengeance.
The cool thing about this show is that bookwriter Marshall keeps many of the familiar things people loved about his classic TV sitcom while the enthusiastic cast of director Gordon Greenberg's confident Broadway-caliber production makes those things their own. No matter how indelibly etched the television cast may be in one's memory, they serve only as a reference point for the newbies. This cast takes ownership of their well-known characters with authority and ease without losing anything that makes this...well, Happy Days.
It's Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1959, and the gang's all here, including wholesome high schooler Richie Cunningham and his charismatic greaser buddy, Fonzie. But, whereas Richie and his cheerful clan were the focal point of the TV show, Marshall now shifts the spotlight to Fonzie, who is called upon to lead an effort to save Arnold's, the high schoolers' beloved afterschool hangout, from the wrecking ball. Howard Cunningham (Richie's dad) and the other members of the local Leopards Lodge decide to sponsor an exhibition wrestling match where the main event will be Fonzie taking on his lifelong enemies, the dreaded Malachi brothers. Even though the Fonz isn't one to run from a challenge or admit weakness, he's reluctant to battle the Malachis. Is he afraid? Will his sense of duty prevail over uncertainty or will he run for the hills? As if things weren't stressful enough, Pinky Tuscadero, Fonzie's motorcycle stunt-driving ex-girlfriend, rolls back into town to aid in the relief effort.
Happy Days doesn't waste any time whipping itself into a delirium, starting with Fonzie's opening number, "Snap," in which he demonstrates his talent for fixing things with a snap of his fingers while a pair of leggy, roller-skating waitresses bring him his signature comb and sunglasses on a platter. Pinky and her entourage, the Pinkettes, get an aerobic, limb-stretching number of their own called "The Pink's in Town." The full cast number "Ordinary Hero" features a battalion of striped and multi-colored toilet plungers (don't ask: it has to be seen to be believed). And, even Richie's mom, Marion, gets in on the action, leading a smiling group of tap-dancing Home Ec pie bakers.
Williams's score doesn't feature anything as memorable as his signature songs (which include "Evergreen," "Rainy Days and Mondays," and "The Rainbow Connection"), but it's still solid and serviceable, advancing the plot and revealing character with a bunch of sunny pop melodies. Everyone gets a chance to strut their stuff, from the Malachis to the loveably awkward teen sweethearts, Joanie and Chachi. Marshall's book, which of course displays his well-honed slam-dunk comic wit, also promotes teamwork, friendship, and loyalty, especially in times of adversity. There's even a tried-and-true moral to the story: that it is only by admitting our own weaknesses that we may be able to achieve our greatest victories. This sentiment could become schmaltzy cheese in lesser hands, but the Happy Days team knows how to sell it as gee-whiz bonhomie that goes down smooth.
Joey Sorge leads this jubilant production with an impressively assured performance as Fonzie. One can really feel the heat between him and Felicia Finley, giving a confident turn of her own as Pinky. They're so good together it's almost a shame the story doesn't focus on their relationship more. But, with a cast as good as this one, Happy Days has to share the wealth and it does. The entire company is pretty darn terrific, and features standout work from Patrick Garner and Cynthia Ferrer as the Cunninghams, Michael J. Farina as Arnold, and Rory O'Malley as Richie. Truth be told, though, everyone fits perfectly into Greenberg's bright, smiling white-picket-fence world.
Whether you're familiar with the original TV show or not, Happy Days: The Musical will undoubtedly leave many a theatergoer smiling and feeling good. Happy days have indeed returned to Paper Mill Playhouse: this production feels like a sign of even better things to come, both for them and from them.