Goodspeed's 'Happy Days' is exuberant but bland

by David A. Rosenberg

First the good news: Audience enthusiasm for Goodspeed Musicals’ “Happy Days” ran high at a recent performance. The cast was exuberant, the dancing a whirligig of windmilling arms, high-kicking legs, snapping fingers and cartwheels (thanks to Michele Lynch’s choreography). A sweet-natured throwback to high school innocence in 1959, the show appears to have a cross-generational appeal.

That ends the good news.

The musical that librettist Garry Marshall and composer/lyricist Paul Williams fashioned out of the successful TV show trades on, without in the least improving, the original. Its wink-wink jokes (“Gas prices: I’m sure they can’t go any higher than 12 cents a gallon”), teeny-tiny story and low-tech physical production don’t cut it.

The plot, such as it is, has to do with Fonzie, the leather-jacketed auto mechanic who chokes on ever having to say he’s wrong. “Am I a worrier or a warrior?” he asks rhetorically, boosting his ego. Called upon to wrestle the scenery-chewing Malachi brothers to raise money and prevent teen hangout Arnold’s from becoming a parking lot and mall, Fonzie flees. It’s not cowardice but a prosaic bad knee that nearly does him in. Not only does our hero come through, of course (no suspense there), he learns humility by admitting his weaknesses.

In “Heartbeat,” one of Williams’ barely distinguishable songs, Fonzie sings “One thing’s clear / This ain’t Shakespeare / We’re just here / To have a good time.” No one could argue with that, but a good time (as in “Grease” or “Wedding Singer,” to name two similar, superior works) needs wit and a reason to stay engaged.

Here the wit runs to “She’s as pure as snow,” followed by “Well, I heard she drifted.” As for engagement, how do we get involved with cut-out characters and a show that is so self-conscious?

Marshall seems to be straining against devising the work he’d rather have written. A gag about white bread and three giant jars of mayonnaise is right out of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” without the satirical ethnicity to give it weight. More, the characters of Pinky, Fonzie’s erstwhile girlfriend, and her cohorts the Pinkettes, give off a faint, though unexplored fragrance of bike chick. Here, a sock hop is a generic sock hop, nothing more, with no attempt to place it in the context of a fraught future.

Under Gordon Greenberg’s go-for-broke direction, Joey Sorge has all the right moves as Fonzie, from the slicking back of his hair to the swaggering walk. Talking with a Brooklyn accent (in Milwaukee?), he teams up with Sandra DeNise as Pinky to sing one of the few memorable tunes, “Dancing on the Moon.” (Another is the title song, taken from the TV series, but not written by Williams.) DeNise is a definite asset. Sensational to look at in her hot pants and blonde wig, she sings like a trumpet and moves like a percolating engine.

Rory O’Malley is an appealing Richie, Stanley Bahorek an impish Ralph, Lannon Killea an eager Chachi and Billy Harrigan Tighe an athletic Potsie. As Richie’s mom (the Nanette Fabray role), Cynthia Ferrer is delightful. Her leading a quartet of tap-dancing, pie-wielding housewives is a highlight.

Throwing caution to the winds, as does a gospel-inspired heavenly visitation number headed by “Elvis Presley” and “James Dean,” the pie interlude is one demonstration of what this show might be if it had more imagination, a better score, less wooden lyrics and fresher jokes. Alas, none of that is true and so we’re stuck with a loud (Goodspeed now relies on head mics), limp evening that, for all its pushiness, is as bland and expendable as a black-and-white TV set.

(This review appeared in The Hour, May 4, 2008)

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