The musical Happy Days is a well-designed crowd pleaser for fans of the popular sitcom that ended its run over a quarter of a century ago. If you enjoyed the television show, you will appreciate the chance to revisit the Cunninghams, Fonzie, and friends in an entertaining production at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia. If you never saw the show or are firmly ensconced in modern society, however, you might find the musical only a moderate source of glee.
“Happy Days”, the television show, received more affection than respect. In ten years it received only a single Emmy® (for best editing). Yet the show touched the hearts of a disillusioned American audience eager for a fun and nostalgic view of the 1950’s in the post-Viet Name, post-Watergate era.
Garry Marshall, creator of both the TV show and the musical, keeps the work true to its roots. The musical is a light comedy based on the warm relationships of the Richie Cunningham, his family, and his friends set in 1959 Milwaukee.
The plot: a threat to tear down the favorite local hangout, Arnold’s Drive-In, to put up a new shopping mall. To raise money to save the restaurant, the group decides to hold a dance contest (which brings back to town as judge the Fonz’s true love, Pinky Tuscadero) and a televised wrestling match (which brings back to town the Fonz’s arch nemesis, the Malachi Brothers).
In the midst of these events the characters face a variety of personal challenges. Will Howard Cunningham receive a plaque from the Leopard Lodge? Will his wife Marion make Howard see that she wants to share more fully in his life by helping him run the hardware store? Will their daughter Joanie successfully experience first love with the Fonz’s cousin Chachi? Most importantly, will Richie’s friendship with Fonzie survive Richie’s attempt to prevent Fonzie from risking permanent injury?
The musical is driven by a peppy pop score from Paul Williams and a book by Garry Williams that effectively combines sitcom humor with knowing references to the show (such as the disappearing older brother Chuck and the infamous ‘jumping the shark” episode). The musical’s creation of a fledging do wop group “The Dial-Tones” comprised of Richie, Potsie, Ralph, and Chachi is one of the show’s few missteps. Fans of the show know that Richie and friends were more into Elvis.
Performers in the leading roles are satisfactory even if some of the casting is a little curious. Jessica Ball is appealing and in fine voice, especially when singing “Message in the Music,” but she lacks Pinky Tuscadero’s edge. Greg Twomey gives a familiar characterization of Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, although some of what made The Fonz cool was his ability to seem the toughest man in the room even while being the shortest, not the tallest. Jamie Boyle, however, does a fine job projecting Richie’s decency and tying the story together.
Much of the fun comes from group numbers and some fine supporting turns. The audience responded strongly to the exuberant company performances in the end of act one dance contest and the big finale number. The vocal blending of the company under the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings is also superb.
It is interesting that a bane of the TV show in its final days was the overreliance on the Joanie and Chachi characters (leading to one season of one of the worst sitcoms in history, “Joanie Loves Chachi”. Here, Amy Sonntag makes a cute and charming Joanie and Chris Rudy is a likeable Chachi.
Another fine supporting performance is given by Esther Covington as Marion Cunningham. She keeps a happy home while swishes around in a crinoline dress as convincingly as the late and beloved Marion Ross did in the television show. The Marion and Joanie number “What I Dreamed Last Night” is a musical highlight of the show.
If you are looking for light and pleasant entertainment, Happy Days is a solid choice. If you are a major fan of the television show, you might even find it “fabulousamundo.”
Happy Days is scheduled to run until June 12, 2011 at Toby’s – the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Rd, Columbia, MD.
Book by Garry Marshall
Music and Lyrics by Paul Williams
Directed and staged by Toby Orenstein and Shawn Kettering
Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Dinner is served before with desert offered at intermission.