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Happy Days - A New Musical
Review by Tim Dunleavy

Happy Days
Felicia Finley and Joey Sorge
The new musical version of Happy Days would seem to have all the ingredients for success. It's received a breezy, likable production, courtesy of director Gordon Greenberg and the staff at Paper Mill Playhouse. It's got two terrific stars. It's got sensational choreography. And it's got crowd-pleasing charm, thanks to the enduring appeal of the long-running TV series that inspired it.

Unfortunately, Happy Days - A New Musical squanders the good will that the TV series earned for it. Garry Marshall, the series' creator, has written a script that stretches a half-hour sitcom premise to two hours, but with less than half a dozen good jokes. And Paul Williams has topped it off with a lame, forgettable pop score.

The original series was hardly groundbreaking, but at its best (the first five years or so of its 1974-1984 run) it was often exceptionally funny and lovable. The series portrayed the 1950s as a calmer, gentler era - but there's nothing calm or gentle about the musical version. Nearly every moment aggressively tries to remind the audience of the glory that was Happy Days - working in catch phrases like Fonzie's "Sit on it" and "Correctamundo" whenever possible. Like most nostalgia trips, things aren't quite as good as we remember them - but there are some nice things about this Happy Days that almost make the ride worthwhile.

For starters, there's Joey Sorge as Fonzie. Sorge imitates the original Fonzie, Henry Winkler, nearly perfectly - from the obvious mannerisms (the finger snap) to the subtle ones (the way his eyes roll back in his head when he's exasperated). Fonzie may have "a black belt in cool," as one song puts it, but he was always more than just a tough guy, and Sorge nicely captures Winkler's mix of over-the-top bravado and underplayed slyness. And he looks like he's having a lot of fun.

And then there's Felicia Finley, burning up the stage as Fonzie's long-lost love, Pinky Tuscadero. The only cast member to improve upon the TV original, Finley has a powerful voice, good chemistry with Sorge, and tons of charisma. If Roz Kelly had been this good as Pinky back in 1976, she would have lasted longer than three episodes.

There's also a spunky turn by Cynthia Ferrer as Marion, the housewife with big dreams and an all-knowing smile. And Natalie Bradshaw and Eric Schneider give Joanie and Chachi a lovely sweetness, capturing all the awkwardness and excitement of first love.

Alas, none of the other actors come close to the charisma of the original TV cast. Richie, Potsie and Ralph fade into the background virtually before our eyes; Richie is introduced as the narrator in the first scene, but that plot device is only mentioned once more before being forgotten. And, as played by Patrick Garner, Richie's dad Howard is such a nonentity that a tribute song to him, led by Fonzie, seems puzzling and undeserved.

For a songwriter of such well-deserved renown, Williams' songs are shockingly pedestrian. His lyrics range from witless ("You just snap your fingers," a chorus coos to Fonzie, "and the ladies start to lust") to boring ("Sometimes a little bit scared can be a good thing," sings Ralph as he psychs himself up for a challenge). A few of the ballads do have nice melodies - Pinky's ode to the Fonz, "Legend in Leather," and "What I Dreamed Last Night," in which Marion and Joanie long for a life with more than just "cleaner cleans and whiter whites." But that's about it. The old Happy Days theme song (written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox) turns up, too; it's the best song in the show.

Most of John McDaniel's arrangements sound like generic modern pop/rock; aside from some impeccable a cappella harmonies from Richie and his buddies on a few songs, there's no 1950s flavor to the music.

Marshall's book - a sequel of sorts to the series' fourth-season opener, "Fonzie Loves Pinky" - has the Cunninghams and their friends teaming up to save Arnold's Drive-In from demolition. Fonzie agrees to help out by taking part in an exhibition wrestling match, but an old injury and the arrival of Pinky complicate things. It's no big surprise to say that things work out fine, thanks in part to a last-minute plot twist that makes almost no sense. (Apparently, teenagers wielded lots of political power back then.) There are some good lines, but many of Marshall's jokes were probably old even in the fifties ("You're in denial." "No, I'm in Milwaukee.").

Michele Lynch's inventive choreography is a lot of fun. Lynch has furnished some lively jitterbugging in a dance contest scene, a snappy tap number for Marion, and a routine that makes clever use of the toilet plungers from Howard's hardware store.

Overall, Happy Days is a fascinating failure. Despite its many flaws, it's weirdly engaging at times - but mostly in the nostalgia it evokes for a series that wrote the book on nostalgia the first time around.

You can expect Happy Days to be popular - both at Paper Mill and in regional theater (a national tour is planned for next year). And why not? It's a family show (except for one crass joke from Chachi that really doesn't belong), and it brings back a cast of characters loved by millions of fans. But, despite the years Marshall and Williams have spent adapting the show for the stage, this version of Happy Days feels dashed off. Families - and those millions of Happy Days fans - deserve better.

Happy Days - A New Musical runs through Sunday, October 28, 2007. Ticket prices range from $25 to $92, with student rush tickets available, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 973-376-4343, in person at Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.papermill.org.


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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-- Tim Dunleavy, guest New Jersey Reviewer



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