BWW Reviews: Energetic HAPPY DAYS at Allenberry Playhouse
Once upon a time there was a television show called "Happy Days". Although the show aired in the 1970's, it was about the late 1950's and early 1960's. And though it was popular enough to last ten years, it's also the source of the expression "jump the shark" - to go irredeemably downhill. Alas, the subsequent play, Happy Days, by Gary Marshall and Paul Williams, was written after the show had jumped the shark, and it suffers from that fact. It is set in 1959, about the fourth year of the show, but it hasn't the energy or the charm of that season of the original series. Currently at Allenberry Playhouse, and directed by Dennis W. McKeen, the mostly young and relatively energetic cast of this production still cannot entirely surmount the uninspired material with which they're faced; nonetheless, they put forth an incredible effort to do so.
There's not much plot, but it's almost true to the show, rather as if one episode were drawn out into a multi-episode arc with insufficient material to fill the entire time. Arnold Delvecchio's (a fine Ryan Roets) shop is to be torn down; where will the kids congregate? The Leopard Lodge, of which Howard Cunningham is lodgemaster, decides to have a fundraising picnic, whose success will net him that greatest of all things, a plaque. The highlight of the picnic will be a wrestling match between the evil Malachi Brothers, recently released from jail (Patrick Detloff is a comical, questionably coordinated "Count" Malachi) and the Fonz... if anyone can find out why the Fonz has run off, and where he's run to. This being a sitcom-derived musical, you know the rest, and you know why this went almost directly to national tour without ever approaching Broadway.
In a fine piece of casting, Michael C. Brown, seen earlier this season in THE ANDREWS BROTHERS, plays Richie Cunningham as Richie Cunningham should be played, with a certain wide-eyed optimism that ignores reality. Reality belongs to the Fonz, officially Arthur Fonzarelli, played with full greaser attitude but perhaps just a trice too slavish a nod to Henry Winkler's original performance by Roque Berlanga; this should be homage, not impersonation. Berlanga is not an untalented performer by any means, but while he has the looks, this is not altogether his part. Perhaps it might be more so if it were made more his own rather than Winkler's.
The same applies to Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, Robert Gadpaille and Dawn Trautman. Unfortunately the play makes use of their interaction primarily as what feels like set-piece comedy sketches inserted between the segments of the plot. Both are fine performers who seem to be doing impersonations of Howard and Marion from the show, though, rather than bringing in any fresh approaches that both are plainly capable of giving the piece. This is particularly sad in that although one hopeS Marshall is being slightly sarcastic about the period in making Marion's existence revolve around cooking and the production of pies, other than in two very fine vocal numbers, which are the musical highlights of the show, there is no challenge by the author to the gender-role-adherence sexism of the period.
The exception to that last point would appear to be Pinky Tuscadero, motorcycling sex symbol and champion of freedom... until we discover that what she really wants to do is cook and clean, even as Marion Cunningham is looking for more to her life than those very activities. However, as Pinky, Grace Bennett does bring the character and her conflicts to life, and looks seriously good doing it. (However, Gary Marshall, Pinky was a demolition derby driver in the show - why the career change for her?) It's no wonder that Pinky is the Fonz's perfect woman, much as he'd like to pretend that he couldn't care less about the one who got away. Pinky is accompanied by her sidekicks, Pinkettes Lola and Tina, played by Caitlin Evans and Casey Weems, equally energetic and attractive, and both fine dancers.
A few of the musical numbers are standouts - primarily "What I Dreamed Last Night," sung by Trautman and Anya Fetcher playing Joanie Cunningham in the first half, and reprised in the second half by Trautman and Fetcher with Bennett. Both musically and thematically, this is by far the best piece in the show. Richie and his friends Ralph, Chachi, and Potsie (ShelDon Rogers [no relation to this reviewer], Jeremy Michael Lagunas, and Todd Zehrer) sing throughout both as themselves in the story line and as their would-be performing group, The Dialtones, mostly amusingly but without much in the way of outstanding material, although "Hot Love," in the second half, is the best of The Dialtones' numbers. These performers themselves are clearly capable of far more than Paul Williams' work here. The Leopard Lodge members are all capable performers as well, and their numbers during the lodge meeting are delightful.
There is also an unintended problem with the scheduling of the show. Originally, a non-musical farce, UNNECESSARY FARCE, was supposed to be performed between the opening show, THE ANDREWS BROTHERS, and this one, but it was cancelled in order to extend THE ANDREWS BROTHERS. Unfortunately, this put a World War Two-themed musical comedy immediately before this 1950's era one. With HAIRSPRAY and its 1960s charm coming up later in the season, a break is definitely needed in order to prevent this season from resembling nothing so much as one's parents' Time-Life "Greatest Hits By Decade" record collections. Fortunately the show is in repertory with THE FULL MONTY, and another musical intervenes before HAIRSPRAY, which should dilute the effect shortly, but at the moment, it all feels a bit as if we are witnessing a musical retrospective by decade.
Happy Days is amusing, but not great - it's not GREASE by any stretch of the imagination. But it's a good time out for the evening or on a summer afternoon at Allenberry, which is always a pleasant place to visit, and for true fans of the original show, it's a trip down memory lane with some favorite characters.
At Allenberry through June 23. Visit www.allenberry.com or call 717-258-3211 for tickets.
Photo Credit: MDT Photography