A new production of the musical version of hit 1970s sitcom, Happy Days is more ‘Richie Cunningham’ than ‘The Fonz’, says David Mullane, but that’s not a reason to stay away.
You may remember Amy Anzel, the super-enthusiastic redhead producer from The Sound of Musicals, Channel 4’s four-part documentary series on the West End, broadcast at the end of last year. Anzel was attempting to mount a new UK production of the musical version of the 1970s (but set in the 1960s) hit sitcom, Happy Days, which first premiered in the US in 2007. Well, she has succeeded and the show started its five-night run in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre last night, as part of a much larger UK and Ireland regional tour.
Before the show began, Anzel herself took to the stage to welcome the audience and introduce the show, which she described, in as many words, as a work in progress, requesting as much feedback as possible from the audience to help herself and her team tweak and improve the production.
After that unnecessary and awkward false start, the jukebox kicked in and the show started – a show of two distinct halves. The first is a very tepid, bland, white bread mush of Americana and witless comedy, with a series of indistinguishable ’50s/’60s early rock ‘n’ roll numbers.
At the interval, which comes after one mercifully fast hour, you could be forgiven for cutting your losses and abandoning the show, but that would be a shame because the second act is a terrific, brand new happy day. It seems as if the cast and band finally wake up and hit their stride. There are two great solo numbers at the top of the act, a gospel number halfway through and a strong ending, when the memorable TV theme-tune kicks in.
The cast does a fine, serviceable job, with the female members outperforming the males. Heidi Range as the romantic lead, Pinky Tuscadero, a character similar to Grease’s post-makeover Sandy, is in good voice. The longest serving member of The Sugababes, her husky vocal abilities lend sexiness to an otherwise virginal score, and she handles the sharp choreography well. An audience favourite, Cheryl Baker as matriarch Marion Cunningham is a welcome sight whenever she comes onstage. Her vocals are dependable as is her comic timing. There’s even a nod to her Bucks Fizz past during one number, which was made even more special last night, given that it was in Dublin where her skirt first got ripped off onstage, at Eurovision 1981.
The star of the show should be Ben Freeman as The Fonz, but the shadow of Henry Winkler’s original TV performance is too great for Freeman to step out from underneath, and his second-rate Fonz tends to suck energy from the show rather than invest it.
In a similar way, the show itself suffers by comparison to better ’50s and ’60s-set musicals like Grease, Hairspray and Jersey Boys. Despite some fantastic creative pedigree, with a book by Garry Marshall (Happy Days the sitcom, The Odd Couple, Pretty Woman and Beaches) and music and lyrics by Paul Williams (Rainbow Connection, Evergreen, Rainy Days and Mondays, We’ve Only Just Begun), the show feels more like an awkward Richie Cunningham than a suave and sexy Fonzie, but it has to be said, Richie Cunningham had his charms
For the second act alone, the show is worth the ticket price. But hasn’t jumped the shark yet, Amy.
Happy Days runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin until February 8, book tickets here.
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