A StageSceneLA prediction: Happy Days The Musical is going to be a sold-out hit at La Mirada Theatre and a surefire smash on its soon-to-begin national tour.  Thanks to major rewrites, a bunch of new songs, Michele Lynch’s rockin’-&-rollin’ choreography, and the firecracker direction of Gordon Greenberg, the 2006 Falcon Theatre world premiere musical has gone from so-so to wow-wow!

Unless you’ve been living under a tree for the past 25 years, you probably know that Happy Days was Garry Marshall’s long-running (over 10 years!) TV sitcom set in 1950s Milwaukee, a series which launched the career of Henry Winkler as Arthur Fonzarelli aka Fonzie aka The Fonz, a supporting character turned superstar.

The Fonz is back in Happy Days The Musical as are his mentee Richie Cunningham, Richie’s best buddies Chachi, Potsie, and Ralph Malph, Richie’s archetypical 1950s parents Howard and Marion, kid sister Joanie and girlfriend Lori Beth, and Fonzie’s pink-leather-jacketed biker-chick main squeeze, the appropriately named Pinky Tuscadero.

Happy Days The Musical revolves around a quintet of “plots” which serve as jumping off points for a couple dozen catchy songs and reprises, a whole lot of high-energy dancing, and abundant laughs.

Here’s what to expect in Happy Days The Musical:
a) Pinky is back in town, with Fonzie alternately excited and dismayed by her return;
b) Local hangout Arnold’s faces demolition to make way for a “shopping mall” (though nobody’s quite sure what this is);
c) Howard and his fellow Leopards (think Moose or Elk with spots) devise a plan to save Arnold’s;
d) The rescue plan involves Fonzie raising funds by wrestling local champs the Malachi brothers;
e) Fonzie decides to leave town rather than admit to having a weak knee;
f) Marian dreams of helping Howard in his store.

At one point, Richie comments that he’s not used to problems which take more than a half hour to solve, one of the show’s many self-referential laughs, which also include Potsie and Ralph Malph making their first entrance singing “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Schlemeel, schlemazel, Hasenfeffer Incorporated” (Happy Days spinoff stars Laverne and Shirley’s theme song opener), and Fonzie’s casual mention of Chuck, Richie’s older brother who appeared in nine episodes, then went out for basketball practice one day and was never heard from again.

Happy Days creator/writer/executive producer Marshall has written the musical’s very funny script, and though I can’t recall exactly what was wrong with it in 2006, it is now quite right (with the possible exception of Fonzie weak knee subplot, which is … a bit weak), getting laugh after laugh from the particular quirks of the TV series’ iconic characters. Also, unlike the recent Very Brady Musical, Happy Days The Musical respects its source materials and the audience which loves them.

Paul Williams’ songs at the Falcon weren’t melodically strong enough to hold up against the Gimbel and Fox TV series theme song. Thankfully, the addition of (according to my count) nine much better new songs remedies this, with two of the best (“Oooooh Bop” and “Heartbeat”) having been added since the Original Papermill Playhouse Cast Recording was made in 2007.  

Clearly, Marshall and Williams didn’t stop tweaking Happy Days’ book, music, and lyrics until they were National Tour ready.

One thing that both the 2006 Falcon original and the 2008 big stage version have in common are performers who positively soar with talent and energy.  A lengthy search for the current cast has led to a sensational merging of a pair of Broadway regulars and the finest triple-threats L.A. theater has to offer.

From the Great White Way come Happy Days’ two most dazzling performances/performers, Joey Sorge as The Fonz and Felicia Finley as Pinkie Tuscadero.

Sorge has been seen by L.A. audiences as Jimmy in the first National Tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie and in the ensemble of the original production of The Drowsy Chaperone.  Now, as Fonzie, the supertalented Sorge gets the star-making role he was born to play.  Sorge captures all the quirky macho charm and appeal of Henry Winkler’s TV original, and adds to that his own leading man handsomeness, sex appeal, and song-and-dance dazzle.

Finley matches Sorge for looks, hotness, and vocal/dance pizzazz every step of the way. The gorgeous performer’s Broadway starring roles include Amneris in Aida and Linda in The Wedding Singer, and her Pinky ignites the stage from her first entrance.  When Sorge and Finley are together, the electricity is at full voltage, especially in their 11th hour duet “Dancing On The Moon.” (If only we could persuade the two of them to stick around a bit longer.)

The Happy Days tour will mean bidding a bittersweet “au revoir” to a bevy of L.A.’s brightest musical theater talents, but our (temporary) loss is the rest of the country’s gain.

Cynthia Ferrer has been playing Marion Cunningham since the first Falcon production, and no wonder. No one else in L.A. theater has Ferrer’s combination of voice and unique comedic gifts. Her Marion borrows a bit from Marian Ross’s original, but ultimately she makes the part very much her own. Her lovely performance of “What I Dreamed Last Night” lets Marion show a deeper side, and its reprise gives Ferrer a chance to show off her 42nd Street-ready tap-dancing feet.

Steven Booth has just the right sweetness (and voice to match) to play boy-next-door Richie Cunningham.  Mask ensemble member Chris Fore takes center stage (and sets hearts aflutter) as teen idol Chachi, and James Michael Lambert (Ralph Malph) and Justin Michael Duval (Potsie) couldn’t be better cast as Richie’s idiosyncratic best friends. Major snaps to all four for their singing and dancing chops. The same is true for cute Whitney Bashor as bobby-soxed kid sister Joanie and lovely Molly Alvarez as Richie’s sweetly perfect girlfriend Lori Beth. 

The “adults” fare equally well.  In a quartet of roles, including the outrageous wrestling Malachi Brothers and James Dean and Elvis Presley, Matt Walker and Matt Merchant prove that they can be equally funny sticking to a script as they are when adlibbing like crazy in As U2 Like It and a bunch of other Troubie shows. Barry Pearl is a huggable Arnold, and the always excellent John Massey is the loveable personification of all TV dads as Howard.

Completing the weak-link-free cast are StageSceneLA favorite Joseph Keene (another star in the making), Jaclyn Miller, Jill Morrison, Gabrielle Reid, Leah Sprecher, and Jeff Summer.

Original Falcon director Marshall has graciously surrendered the director’s chair to Gordon Greenberg (who also directed the show’s east coast Goodspeed and Paper Mill runs) and his work here couldn’t be better, as the show’s spot on performances and non-stop energy prove.

Michele Lynch follows her sensational work choreographing a baker’s dozen teens in the Taper’s 13 with equally show-stopping work here.  John McDaniel did the production’s excellent musical supervision, arrangement, and orchestration, with Bruce Barnes deserving equal credit for his musical direction of the show’s get-up-and-dance 7-piece band.

Thumbs up too for Walt Spangler’s colorful scenery, which brings to stage life Arnold’s red Naugahyde booths and the sitcom’s other well-known locales (appropriately inside a TV screen-shaped proscenium frame), and David C. Woolard’s collection of 50s full skirts and petticoats and lettermen’s jackets.  High marks also to Jeff Croiter’s lighting, Julie Ferrin’s sound, and Judi Lewin’s hair, wig, and make up.

Whatever happens following the Happy Days tour, the show is certain to be a bonanza for high schools and regional theaters.  (Imagine the excitement of teen and adult actors across the country in getting to embody these iconic TV sitcom characters.)  Opening night cheers greeted nearly every song and dance, and the cast was rewarded with a deserved standing ovation. Only a curmudgeon could fail to have a happy time at Happy Days.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

–Steven Stanley
November 1, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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