What with contemporary musical theater's artistic bent toward the nostalgic in recent years, it should come as no surprise that Happy Days, the ABC sitcom that painted an affectionate portrait of life in Milwaukee in the late 1950s/early 1960s, was adapted by the show's creator Garry Marshall and composer Paul Williams into a musical comedy.
Mining the show's rich cast of characters and storylines for the transfer to the musical theater stage, Marshall and Williams have created a piece that hews closely to the televised memories we all have of The Fonz, his pal Richie Cunningham and all the other Jefferson High guys and gals. Unfortunately, Marshall's book falls flat much of the time, despite some moments that are genuinely funny (if too self-referential by half), and Williams' songs aren't consistently winners, although there are a couple that deserve a far better vehicle than Happy Days, The Musical, a particularly bland and uninspired take on 1950s Americana.
Now onstage at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre-director Tom Thayer delivers a perfectly competent and entertaining production of the show that suffers in the inevitable comparisons to Grease and the very television series (which, in turn, followed in the wake of the success of the film American Graffiti) that has inspired the piece-Happy Days, The Musical has a certain lighter-than-air quality to it that sets the right tone for the whole affair, although Marshall's jokes tend to fall short of the mark and the show's plot (a convoluted plan to save Arnold's drive-in from demolition via a dance contest, a Leopard Lodge picnic and a wrestling match) seems like an extended episode from the series. Thankfully, a subplot about Marion Cunningham's emergence as a "modern woman" from her pie-baking and house-dressed existence is used primarily to deliver laughs instead of being serious in the way that "a very special episode of Happy Days" or an ABC After-School Special would have been.
In fact, most of the really funny lines tend to be references that only longtime fans of the TV series will recognize, which begs the question how will audiences unfamiliar with the series respond? That part remains unclear, but it seems that people of a certain age (that would include me, of course) will respond knowingly and affectionately to the goings-on onstage, while younger audience members seem rather indifferent to the plot.
Perhaps therein lies the real problem with Happy Days, The Musical. Marshall's book is kind of ho-hum and exceedingly old-fashioned-which is fine, if not necessarily compelling or engaging-while Williams' score seems somewhat hit-or-miss. Sure, the score has its moments, particularly "What I Dreamed Last Night" (which starts out as a lovely solo for Marion Cunningham in Act One and becomes a trio for Marion, Joanie and Pinky Tuscadero in the second act reprise which is, without doubt, the show's finest musical performance), the first act's penultimate number "Message in the Music" (which provides Pinky a good song) and Act Two's "Dancing on the Moon," a romantic duet for Pinky and The Fonz. Much of the score sound like recycled 1950s pop, which certainly is to be expected given the show's time frame, but the overall effect is uneven. Let's face it, when you find yourself scanning the playbill to figure out when the TV series' evocative theme song will be performed, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the musical program, although when that iconic song is performed during the finale, the pay-off is definitely worth the wait.
Thayer's direction of the piece keeps the plot moving forward at a good pace and the economical set design provides the perfect backdrop for the play's action, while Adam Kurtz's lighting design seems unnecessarily murky and atmospheric at times. Costumes, credited to Thayer, are perfect for the time period and for the pictures of the characters that reside in the recesses of your mind.
While it's important that the actors cast as those characters deliver evocative portrayals that help to recapture those same memories for you, it's also essential that no one slips into easy choices or stereotypical performances. And that, quite frankly, is where the Roxy Regional Theatre production excels: Tom Thayer and artistic director John McDonald know how to cast the right actors in the right roles and Happy Days, The Musical, clearly, is no exception to that rule.