Romping in the Fifties: Happy Days: A New Musical at Goodspeed Opera House

By David Begelman

To put you in the mood for a trip to yesteryear’s hopping decade, Goodspeed Opera House warms you up aplenty. It pipes in fifties ballads over an outside sound system even before you enter its stately theater in East Haddam, CT. Connie Francis is heard warbling Where the Boys Are, as well as Dion and the Belmonts singing Teenager in Love. Its only the beginning of a trip down memory lane for many of us. In the event you’re not completely swallowed up in the time-warp, there is an enormous sign displayed over the front door welcoming you to a 1959 class reunion.

And then there is the show itself, a bouncy musical romp based on the television series Happy Days, with its cast of lovables: Richie, Chachie, Potsie, Ralph, Joanie, and, of course, Fonzie, coolest of the leathered set, idol of his peers, and one of a rare, if not virtually non-existent breed: the adorable narcissist. His usual accouterments are Dolores and another indispensable companion. These turn out to be a motorcycle and a pocket comb.

With a book by Garry Marshall (the original author of the series) and music and lyrics by Paul Williams, Happy Days involves efforts on the part of its cast of characters to save their local hangout, Arnold’s Drive-In, from closing to make way for a parking lot. Fonzie is chosen to wrestle the intimidating Malachi brothers, a brace of bullies by the improbable names of Jumpy and Myron. Any contest of the ferocious pair with our hero is a sure bet to raise the funds necessary to rescue Arnold’s from condemnation. But Fonzie, unknown to everyone, has a bum knee that puts him on the endangered list in any contest with opponents as fracturing as the Malachis. Fonzie’s initial failure of nerve gives way unsurprisingly to something else in the end, as the audience comes to appreciate.

Does it matter much whether some feel this production is flawed? Granted, it is. For starters, it is either overshadowed by, or too reminiscent of its predecessor, Grease. Its musical numbers follow each other too rapidly to allow breathing time for serious character development beyond caricature, and the music, while lively, is not especially memorable. No one walks out of Goodspeed after seeing this show whistling a tune from it that strikes a responsive ear. There is much broad and tasteless humor in the remarks of some of its characters, and cheap one-liners are tossed out like confetti over a bridal twosome.

But when it comes to carping too fiercely, you lose the forest for the trees. There is much in this batch of fluff you can savor—mightily. Your wagon should be hitched to what is really enjoyable about the confection. The most notable of its treats is the spectacle of talented triple-threat performers doing their thing in group numbers, many of which are thrilling to watch.

Some characterizations are polished ones. Topping the list is the charismatic personality of Fonzie himself (played by Joey Sorge, who, as the strutting yet vulnerable greaser, compares favorably to Henry Winkler, the original Fonz, on a scale of dashing).

On the female side, delightful portrayals are turned in by performers who strike unique notes in a gang of luscious hangers-on who, while comely, seem to be along only for the ride. These include Cynthia Ferrer playing Marion Cunningham, the endearing but by now anachronistic housewife, whose driving ambition is to bake pies and otherwise dote on her hard-working husband, Howard, played by Kevin Carolan. (Not for long, however. Marion’s ingenuity in devising colored toilet plungers that could be marketed commercially exhibits all the signs of a nascent feminism, unbeknownst even to her.)

Then there is the delightful and energetic Savannah Wise as Joanie, the only character in whom we see a coming of age transition from reticent teenager to an exuberance matching, when not exceeding, the élan of the rest of the whole Milwaukee gang.

On the vocal side, you couldn’t ask for a more talented belter than Sandra DeNise, playing Pinky Tuscadero, the estranged girl friend of Fonzie, who comes back to town for a reprise of her romance with him. Ms. DeNise could take on a leading role in Cats, Aida, Rent, Witches, or South Pacific without any of these shows being any the worse for wear vocally.

Gordon Greenberg’s face-paced direction added luster to the action, while Michele Lynch’s choreography, especially in the group numbers, was exhilarating and innovative. Special mention should be made of Walt Spangler’s scenic design. Not only imaginatively conceived, it had the advantage of rapid set changes that did not impede the continuity of action, a virtue sorely missing in many productions elsewhere.

All in all, and on balance, a fun time despite the flaws. If you can’t get past them, Scrooge you.

Happy Days has extended its run to July 4, 2008. Performances run on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 2:00 PM and 6:30 PM on Select Weeks. Tickets are $26 to $63 through the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org.

(This review appears in New Fairfield’s Citizen News)

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