BWW Reviews: Nostalgic HAPPY DAYS, THE MUSICAL Onstage at Roxy Regional Theatre
What with contemporary musical theater's artistic bent toward the nostalgic in recent years, it should come as no surprise that Happy Days, the ABC sitcom that painted an affectionate portrait of life in Milwaukee in the late 1950s/early 1960s, was adapted by the show's creator Garry Marshall and composer Paul Williams into a musical comedy.
Mining the show's rich cast of characters and storylines for the transfer to the musical theater stage, Marshall and Williams have created a piece that hews closely to the televised memories we all have of The Fonz, his pal Richie Cunningham and all the other Jefferson High guys and gals. Unfortunately, Marshall's book falls flat much of the time, despite some moments that are genuinely funny (if too self-referential by half), and Williams' songs aren't consistently winners, although there are a couple that deserve a far better vehicle than Happy Days, The Musical, a particularly bland and uninspired take on 1950s Americana.
Now onstage at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre-director Tom Thayer delivers a perfectly competent and entertaining production of the show that suffers in the inevitable comparisons to Grease and the very television series (which, in turn, followed in the wake of the success of the film American Graffiti) that has inspired the piece-Happy Days, The Musical has a certain lighter-than-air quality to it that sets the right tone for the whole affair, although Marshall's jokes tend to fall short of the mark and the show's plot (a convoluted plan to save Arnold's drive-in from demolition via a dance contest, a Leopard Lodge picnic and a wrestling match) seems like an extended episode from the series. Thankfully, a subplot about Marion Cunningham's emergence as a "modern woman" from her pie-baking and house-dressed existence is used primarily to deliver laughs instead of being serious in the way that "a very special episode of Happy Days" or an ABC After-School Special would have been.
In fact, most of the really funny lines tend to be references that only longtime fans of the TV series will recognize, which begs the question how will audiences unfamiliar with the series respond? That part remains unclear, but it seems that people of a certain age (that would include me, of course) will respond knowingly and affectionately to the goings-on onstage, while younger audience members seem rather indifferent to the plot.
Perhaps therein lies the real problem with Happy Days, The Musical. Marshall's book is kind of ho-hum and exceedingly old-fashioned-which is fine, if not necessarily compelling or engaging-while Williams' score seems somewhat hit-or-miss. Sure, the score has its moments, particularly "What I Dreamed Last Night" (which starts out as a lovely solo for Marion Cunningham in Act One and becomes a trio for Marion, Joanie and Pinky Tuscadero in the second act reprise which is, without doubt, the show's finest musical performance), the first act's penultimate number "Message in the Music" (which provides Pinky a good song) and Act Two's "Dancing on the Moon," a romantic duet for Pinky and The Fonz. Much of the score sound like recycled 1950s pop, which certainly is to be expected given the show's time frame, but the overall effect is uneven. Let's face it, when you find yourself scanning the playbill to figure out when the TV series' evocative theme song will be performed, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the musical program, although when that iconic song is performed during the finale, the pay-off is definitely worth the wait.
Thayer's direction of the piece keeps the plot moving forward at a good pace and the economical set design provides the perfect backdrop for the play's action, while Adam Kurtz's lighting design seems unnecessarily murky and atmospheric at times. Costumes, credited to Thayer, are perfect for the time period and for the pictures of the characters that reside in the recesses of your mind.
While it's important that the actors cast as those characters deliver evocative portrayals that help to recapture those same memories for you, it's also essential that no one slips into easy choices or stereotypical performances. And that, quite frankly, is where the Roxy Regional Theatre production excels: Tom Thayer and artistic director John McDonald know how to cast the right actors in the right roles and Happy Days, The Musical, clearly, is no exception to that rule.
Regan Featherstone is taller, more handsome and a better singer and dancer than Henry Winkler, who created the role of Arthur Fonzarelli for the TV series, and he gives an appealing performance in the role that seems right on-target without being slavish or particularly reverent to the original. Instead, Featherstone gives us a slightly irreverent take on The Fonz that is emblematic of his talents and versatility-and he looks terrific in tight jeans and a leather jacket.
With his fresh-faced charm and winning smile (not to mention his shock of red hair), Rob Rodems is ideally cast as Richie Cunningham, taking on the role of the show's narrator and central character with an easy, casual grace that's perfect for his character. Rodems' Richie is earnest and accessible, embodying the character's innocence with confidence, and never for a moment does he attempt an impersonation of Ron Howard.
Kaitlin Doughty looks like a million bucks in Pinky Tuscadero's short-shorts (why in the world does the script make reference to Joanie Cunningham's "hot pants" in 1959?) and pink cowgirl boots, and the actress fairly drips bad-girl sensuality and confidence in her every moment onstage. Doughty also delivers the musical goods with amazing skill, making the most of her musical numbers and providing the drop-dead gorgeous counterpoint to Featherstone's ladykilling Fonz.
As Marion Cunningham, the perfect 1950s housewife (hey, if she was good enough for Roseanne to resurrect for a brief cameo on her 1990s TV show, she's good enough for me), Jama Bowen gives a heartwarming performance that is underscored by her own stage presence. Her performance of "What I Dreamed Last Night" was a great rendition of a lovely ballad, while the second act trio with Doughty and Hannah Church (who plays Joanie with an appropriate level of annoying little-sister mixed with budding sexpot) is, without doubt, the show's shining musical number. Williams' song is lovely and powerful in its subtle theatrics.
Ben Prayz is fine as hardware honcho Howard Cunningham (but do we really need the whole "Let's Give it to Howard" production number?) and Humberto Figueroa and Sean Ormond make the most of their meager comic opportunities to score some hits as the wrestling Malachi brothers. Ashley Laverty and Erin Keas add a variety of female characters to the mix with their expected professionalism and commitment.
The script for the musical elevates the character of Chachi Arcola (The Fonz's cousin and Joanie's suitor) from his relatively original minor role to more of an equal member of Richie's white-bread gang. Played by Travis Kendrick (without even a hint of Scott Baio in his altogether original mix), Chachi more than holds his own with Richie's other friends, joining Richie, Potsie and Ralph Malph to form the musical quarter The Dialtones, who bring to mind the guy groups of the 1950s and '60s with clever choreography and delightful harmonies.
Finally, kudos to the always appealing Ryan Bowie who brings Potsie Webber to life with his perfectly nuanced performance and to Josh Bernaski who is tasked with bringing Ralph Malph to the stage. Both men are successful; for certain, Potsie and Ralph are still the cute nerds we all remember, but Bowie and Bernaski somehow reinvigorate them with an appealing freshness (which sounds like some sort of feminine hygiene commercial, doesn't it?).
- Happy Days, The Musical. Book by Garry Marshall. Music and lyrics by Paul Williams. Directed and staged by Tom Thayer. Choreography by Emily Ford. Presented by the Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Through August 18. For information, call to www.RoxyRegionalTheatre.org, or call (931) 645-7699 for tickets.