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Robert Petrarca, Ryan Bollman, Joey McIntyre,
and Rory O'Malley in Happy Days
(Photo © Wesley Horton)
Thanks to original series creator Garry Marshall and award-winning composer Paul Williams, Happy Days are here again -- only this time, the beloved TV sitcom about life in Milwaukee in the 1950s as seen through the eyes of the squeaky clean, middle-class Cunningham family has been set forth as a musical. And that makes sense, as far as it goes. As Marshall explains in his Director's Notes in the program, "Music was the heart and soul of the sitcom." And with the jukebox from Arnold's (Ernie Sabella) diner in the corner and a giant radio dial framing the stage with a live six-piece band atop it, music is clearly the main focus of this show. Unfortunately, Marshall's direction is jokey, nostalgic, and self-referential, while the script is like bland mayonnaise spread across the white-bread Cunningham family.

The premise Marshall has supplied for this musical stroll down memory lane is the impending 1959 high school graduation of Richie "Red" Cunningham (Rory O'Malley), his sweetie pie Lori Beth Allen (Anna A. White), and his sidekicks Ralph Malph (the energetic Ryan Bollman) and Potsie Webber (Robert Petrarca). Richie has dreams of being a journalist and documenting these "happy days" so that life as he and his friends know it then will never be forgotten. But, of course, life is full of change. Some can adapt while others, like the iconic Fonzie (Joey McIntyre), have more trouble doing so. The Fonz feels left out of all the end-of-school excitement and adrift in his own life. Without the kids to idolize him, where will he be? Who will he be? Can he ever get the money to open his own garage? And what to do about his childhood squeeze, Pinky Tuscadero (Audra Blaser), who's back in town and trying to entice him into being her partner in Mr. Cunningham's charity tag-team wrestling match with the good-for-nothing Malachi brothers (Matt Merchant and Paul Vogt)?

The 1960s are looming on the horizon, and the times they are a-changin'. While Fonzie frets over his shifting status as the cool cat leader of the malt shop/sock hop brigade, Mrs. Cunningham sees her avocado seed sprouting and fantasizes about another life, one beyond the borders of being a happy homemaker. (Her matrimonial tap routine with Lori Beth is another of the show's highlights.)

Most of the cast is strong; Arnold is played by Ernie Sabella, Mr. Cunningham by Wayne Duvall, Mrs. Cunningham by the delightful Cynthia Ferrer. Yet for all of the top-notch talent and resources attached to this production, Happy Days never really kicks into gear. It tends to sputter along, although Randy Skinner's lively choreography throws off some sparks. Williams's mostly milky white score is enlivened by a few notable numbers, such as "Opportunity Knocks" (in which Fonzie offers words of wisdom and encouragement to Richie and the gang during their college placement exams) and the duet "What I Dreamed Last Night" (in which Marion and Joanie, played by the irrepressible Christine Lakin, contemplate the future.)

Although Marshall has an undeniable talent for TV comedy, this show is a hit-and-miss adventure that proves he sometimes doesn't know when to stop. For example, Vogt's ridiculous riff on tapioca pudding at the top of Act II sends the show spinning into stand-up comedy land for way too long. (The fact that the routine elicits a few laughs from the audience should not be interpreted as a sign of approval.) Another of the show's problems lies in the casting of McIntyre, who's too young and lacks the charisma to properly play Fonzie. In his program bio, the actor thanks series star Henry Winkler for showing him how to play it cool, but this is something that really cannot be taught.

Eventually, the show gets around to the all-too-predictable, no surprises happy ending -- capped, of course, by the bouncy theme song of the TV series. After all, familiarity is the main reason why this musical came to be.

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