Felicia Finley and Joey Sorge
in Happy Days -- The Musical
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Felicia Finley and Joey Sorge
in Happy Days -- The Musical
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Garry Marshall, who created the long-running television series Happy Days, has joined with Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams to turn the hit ABC situation comedy into a bland-as-pablum Happy Days -- The Musical which has now arrived at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Fans of the small-screen hit -- and almost no one else -- will be mildly interested to know that the two-act tuner focuses not on the sitcom's main character, Richie Cunningham (Rory O'Malley), but on the popular motorcycle-riding, tough-talking Fonzie (played by Joey Sorge).

The three-inch-deep questions asked here are: Will Fonzie reunite with ex-girl-friend Pinky Tuscadero (Felicia Finley); and will he, despite a bad knee, wrestle the mean Malachi brothers in a fund-raiser to save mall-doomed Arnold's, where the beloved characters regularly hang out? The answers to both queries aren't surprising, nor are they halfway as interesting as watching grass grow.

But wait, there is a moral embedded here that Marshall and Williams obviously hope distinguishes their light-weight entertainment. By final curtain, they establish the notion that genuine heroes are often ordinary people courageous enough to admit their weaknesses.

Luckily, those looking for a genuinely good reason to see this example of a blatantly commercial show don't have to look farther than Sorge, who not only resembles Fonzie-originator Henry Winkler but who plays the benign hoodlum with the same lovable swagger, and Finley, who storms on stage as a sexpot in a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig and all-knowing leer and builds on her charisma by singing like a rock-band trumpet section and dancing as if inhabited by a dervish. Todd Buonopane as goofball Ralph Malph and Eric Schneider as eager Chachi also provide the show with much-needed vigor. (Schneider will be succeeded by Robb Sapp on October 17.)

Aside from those performers, however, there's precious little to raise Happy Days -- which set designer Walt Spangler frames with a television-set-like false proscenium -- above the level of entrenched mediocrity. To say that Williams has written actual songs adding up to a score is to overrate his contribution madly. In reality, he's tossed off songlets that the above-mentioned Sorge and Finley occasionally make listenable. The dippy ditties also have the advantage of some bright John McDaniel arrangements and once or twice the enhancing energy of Michele Green's choreography.

Marshall's dialogue, which director Gordon Greenberg is given the futile task of vivifying, is weaker than the Fonz's demolition-derby-damaged knee. When Richie says, "Forget my sister -- we're talking about girls," a sweetening laugh track would howl if one was available. Instead, Marshall and Greenberg must content themselves with living, breathing audience members -- many of whom are actually gleeful about seeing old boob-tube friends cavorting on an actual stage.

Watching Happy Days, one is likely to wonder whether this is the best Marshall and Williams can do or whether this is all they believe they need offer in order to make a few bucks. Either way, it's a sad comment on the state of some musical comedy purveyors today.