Happy Days

By Geary Danihy

Play-going man does not live by Hamlet and Death of a Salesman alone. A steady diet of theatrical meat and potatoes, with some gristle thrown in for good measure, is simply not satisfying, so sometimes you skip the main course and tuck into dessert – empty calories but totally enjoyable.

Such is the case with Happy Days, which is currently running at Goodspeed Opera House. It’s all whipped cream, triple scoops and chocolate shot, but it goes down oh so easily and it’s fun to consume.

Based on the hit television show, Happy Days, with music and lyrics by Paul Williams and a book by Garry Marshall, is two hours of almost non-stop music and dance that never ceases to entertain.

The plot, such as it is, involves the pending demolition of Arnold’s, the quintessential 50s teen hangout, and efforts by a familiar cast of characters to avert such a disaster. It’s thin, but it really doesn’t matter, because what the show is really about is nostalgia and the chance to once again see Richie Cunningham (Rory O’Malley), his parents, Marion (Cynthia Ferrer) and Howard (Kevin Carolan), his sister Joanie (Savannah Wise), Ralph (Stanley Bahorek), Potsie (Billy Harrigan Tighe), Chachi (Lannon Killea) and, of course, the Fonz (Joey Sorge) and his main squeeze, Pinky Tuscadero (Sandra DeNise).

All of the cast and production crew are listed in the program save for one very important person – the doctor hiding off-stage who provided the constant injections of adrenaline that keep everyone on stage in high gear throughout the performance. It’s too bad the energy couldn’t be hooked up to CLP’s power grid – Goodspeed could have made a nice piece of change.

Central to the success of the production, which is staged with Goodspeed’s usual style and flair, is the Fonz, and Sorge has this character down pat – the smirk, the shoulder twitches, head jerks and the finger snapping are all there, as is the child-like egotism that doesn’t allow the Fonz to admit he is wrong. Playing against him as Pinky, and having a hell of a time doing it, DeNise is letter-perfect as the only woman who could break the Fonz’s heart. Strutting her stuff and cracking wise, DeNise moves around the stage like a caged panther, pausing every now and then to thrust out a hip and bare her fangs.

Other standouts in this outstanding cast are Ferrer, who does a nice turn as Richie’s somewhat naïve mom who tap-dances her way into the audience’s heart, and Matt Merchant and Garth Kravits as the Malachi brothers, Myron and Jumpy, the two bullies who are scheduled to wrestle Richie and Ralph at a benefit for Arnold’s. These two just about stop the show early in the second act with their paean to the art of being mean. Also of note is Wise’s portrayal of Richie’s sister – her Joanie is a tiny bundle of energy so eager to grow up she seems constantly on the brink of explosion.

William’s score is, if not memorable, at least bouncy and lyrical, with such songs as “Romeo Midnight,” “The Pink’s in Town” and “Legend in Leather” all easy on the ear and, as they “usta say” on American Bandstand, have a nice beat and “you can dance” to them, and dance they do under the direction of choreographer Michele Lynch. I would venture to guess that most of the cast members lose between two and three pounds per performance, given that they are in almost constant motion.

There’s really not much to find fault with in Happy Days. The show sets out to please and entertain and it accomplishes these two tasks admirably. There’s no message, no sub-text, no attempt to be anything other than what it is – an old-fashioned musical reminiscent of those cranked out by Hollywood in the late 40s and early 50s. It’s hot-fudge-sundae theater, and it’s okay to indulge every once in a while, so if you like to watch talented singers and dancers do their stuff, and do it well, and are not theatrically calorie-conscious, then a trip to East Haddam should be on your calendar.

Happy Days has been extended through Friday, July 4. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.

To read what other critics think of this show or to learn what is playing at theaters around Connecticut, go to www.ctcritics.org.

(This review originally ran in the Norwalk Citizen News.)

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