By LIZ BYRON. Yes, that’s right, there is a musical based on the TV show Happy Days. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never seen a single episode of the iconic show (blame it on my age plus my general preference for books over TV as a kid), but my theatre companion had, which made for interesting comparisons afterward. There were a few references that went over my head, but as a rule, the musical production is easily accessible and comprehensible to audience members previously unfamiliar with Richie, Potsie, Ralph Malph, and of course, the Fonz.
Happy Days, based on a book by Garry Marshall with music and lyrics by Paul Williams, takes place during Richie Cunningham’s senior year of high school. Richie and his friends are devastated to learn that their hangout Arnold’s is in danger of being demolished, so the whole gang sets to work raising money to save the beloved malt shop. They hold a dance contest and a televised wrestling match, amidst various romantic entanglements, personal dilemmas, and other teenage dramas. Central to the action, of course, is Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli, who has to face the possibility of not being able to play his usual role as the hero of the hour. Add some hula hoops, poodle skirts, and cuffed jeans, not to mention a lot of up-beat poppy songs, and you’ve got it.
The main plot is a little thin — but then, it is a musical based on a sitcom, so we’re not exactly expecting Shakespeare, right? — and multiple sub-plots round out the show. However, while the sub-plots (Joanie likes Chachi! Richie’s girlfriend wants to get engaged! Mrs Cunningham wants to get a job!) do help flesh out the other characters, they also threaten to overwhelm the already-light main plot. It isn’t really a problem, but it does give me the impression that the show is sort of meandering around rather than really going somewhere.
But while I’m talking about plots, I have to add that I, for one, really enjoyed some of the all-male numbers. After all, how often do we get to see guys singing about their friendship, or the pressure they feel to take the lead, or admitting to each other that they don’t really know how to “get the girl”? This was really fun to watch.
At times throughout the show, I was distracted by some of the costumes and set pieces. Costume designer Samantha Kuhn Staneart creates a bright world with colourful dresses and flouncy skirts, cuffed jeans, letterman jackets, and a variety of amusing hats (although some of the costumes seemed oddly ill-fitting, and it was unclear whether it was intentional or not; this high school teacher can tell you that teenage girls wear the wrong size/fit all the time, but you don’t usually see this depicted on stage). Meanwhile, Darren Hensel (set designer) and Val Larche (prop master) keep things relatively simple set-wise, which is probably just as well, balanced against the large cast and their bright attire. But something seemed a little off, and I think it’s just this: it looked like a low-budget production. This isn’t a bad thing, except that it seemed at odds with the number of costume changes and set moves, and the live band on-stage (they were awesome, by the way), and the large stage (maybe too large? The New Century Theater‘s stage is very long but relatively shallow, which makes for some odd choreography sometimes — not just in this play). It seemed like the budget didn’t match the ambitious scope of the production, where it could have been scaled down a bit and looked better.
But despite these concerns, it was impossible not to enjoy Happy Days. The cast was energetic and entertaining. My particular favourites were Briana Patnode as an enthusiastic but awkward Joanie and Kory LaQuess Pullam as her love interest, Chachi, who was fun to watch as the boy who is primarily concerned with looking cool. John Zeiler did a remarkable job as Fonzie — big, iconic shoes to fill, his swagger and his “ay!” were spot-on, and his love interest, Quinn Shadko as Pinky, had an equally impressive swagger that helped her steal the show every time she strutted on stage.
So, is Happy Days worth your while? If you’re a fan of the show, it will definitely make you laugh. If you’re not, it is still definitely entertaining, but you have to be prepared to accept it at face value and enjoy some fluff. And really, what’s wrong with a little fluff?
Happy Days: A New Musical by Garry Marshall (book) and Paul Williams (music and lyrics) presented by Minneapolis Musical Theatre and Hennepin Theatre Trust runs April 24-May 17, 2015 at the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s New Century Theatre, 615 Ave S, Minneapolis. Tickets $30; student tickets $20, and group discounts and student/educator rush tickets available, at 612-455-9501 or http://www.hennepintheatretrust.org