Happy Days The Musical: Sit On It, Beckett

No, the new musical called Happy Days is not a song and dance show based on Samuel Beckett's play about a woman buried in a mound of dirt for two acts, but I'm sure many would argue that's a better idea than basing one on the 1974-84 sitcom that took a wholesome look back at 1950's suburban life and made a cultural icon out of a supremely cool bike riding auto mechanic named Fonzie.  But believe it or not, Happy Days, with a book by the TV show's creator, Garry Marshall, and a score by pop tunesmith Paul Williams ("Evergreen," "The Rainbow Connection") is actually a well-crafted, very enjoyable piece of fluff musical comedy fun.

This isn't a spoof or a jukebox musical, as you might expect, but a good-hearted family musical that, aside from a few inside jokes, can stand on its own even if the TV show didn't exist.  The plot may be a little sitcomy (surprise! surprise!) and the ending may be a little forced but the authors, neither of whom have ever written a musical before, provide a warm, funny script with a positive message and a pleasant rock and roll score that nicely defines the characters and moves the plot along.  Add a completely lovable cast, a sparkling production by director Gordon Greenberg and some period choreography by Michele Lynch that crackles with energy and excitement and you've got a terrific night out.

Set in 1959, the story involves Fonzie being asked to partake in a televised wrestling match to help raise money to prevent the popular drive-in burger joint, Arnold's, from being torn down to make way for "something called a mall."  Best pal Richie Cunningham is the only one in town who knows that The Fonz would be risking permanent damage to his injured knee and threatens to let the town know for his friend's own good, but Fonzie can't bear the thought of being perceived as less than perfect.  Adding romantic pressures, his old flame, stunt motorcyclist star Pinky Tuscadero, is in town trying to rekindle the sparks that were doused when Fonzie decided he wasn't able to commit to a woman who would be the center of attention.  But in the end our leather-jacketed hero learns a few things about love, self-image and what really makes someone "cool."

Joey Sorge has an immensely difficult job in playing one of television's most familiar characters and he knocks it out of the park.  While doing a remarkable impersonation of the way the role was played by its TV originator, Henry Winkler, nailing all of the distinct idiosyncrasies, Sorge never loses the humanity of the role.  Fonzie seems more flesh and blood in the musical than he ever did on the little screen.

Pinky Tuscadero was only a short-lived character on the series, but she's a major player here and Felicia Finley takes full advantage of her star role.  She explodes onto the stage at her first entrance, singing with a fierce, sterling belt and dancing up a high-octane storm, giving the kind of confident, polished performance you can't keep your eyes off. The chemistry between her and Sorge positively steams up the place.

Rory O'Mally (Richie), Todd Buonopane (Ralph), Christopher Ruth (Potsie), Natalie Bradshaw (Joanie), Eric Schneider (Chachi), Michael J. Farina (Arnold) and Patrick Garner (Mr. Cunningham) all capture the idealistic warmth of their characters without going into detailed impersonations.  Cynthia Ferrer does seem a bit cloned from Marion Ross' Mrs. Cunningham, but like Sorge's Fonzie, it's a sympathetic portrayal, even when she's adorably leading a chorus of pie-bearing homemakers in a rousing tap dance.  A highlight of Williams' score is a touching little number where she shows some fledgling awareness of what will become the women's rights movement of the 60's while her daughter and Pinky express their dreams to have the happy suburban housewife life she's been living.

Walt Spangler (set), David C. Woolard (costumes) and Jeff Croiter (lights) deliver cheery, candy-colored visuals coming out of a false proscenium shaped like a TV screen.

As a TV show, Happy Days wasn't exactly one of my favorites, but on the musical stage it's rather sweet and charming.

Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Joey Sorge; Lisa Gajda, Felicia Finley and Stephanie Gibson; Christopher Ruth, Todd Buonopane, Eric Schneider and Rory O'Malley

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