Happy Days (and nights) have arrived at the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center as Cabrillo Music Theatre presents Happy Days, the popular new(ish) musical based on Garry Marshall’s TV favorite.

I say “new(ish)” because the Paul Williams-scored musical actually debuted at Marshall’s Falcon Theatre back in 2006, then underwent major rewrites including the addition of a bunch of new songs before returning bigger and considerably better, first in a pair of East Coast engagements and then in a major National Tour, reviewed here two years ago on its first stop, in La Mirada.

Now that Happy Days has been released to regional theaters, it makes a splashy return to Southern California with a dandy new director, Falcon Theatre favorite Susan Morgenstern, a sensational new choreographer, John Charron, and an all new cast who bring creator/book writer Marshall’s iconic characters sparklingly to life.

Those characters, of course, made their first Happy Days appearance in 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.

Naturally, The Fonz is back in Happy Days The Musical as is his best buddy and #1 disciple Richie Cunningham, and of course 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 plot twists serving as jumping off points for a couple dozen catchy songs and reprises, a whole lot of high-energy dancing, and abundant laughs. Pinky is back in town, making Fonzie alternately excited and dismayed by her return; local hangout Arnold’s faces demolition to make way for a “shopping mall” (though nobody’s quite sure what this is); Howard and his fellow Leopards (think Moose or Elk with spots) devise a plan to save Arnold’s; the rescue plan involves Fonzie raising funds by wrestling local champs the Malachi brothers; Fonzie decides to leave town rather than admit to having a weak knee; and 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, getting laugh after laugh from the particular quirks of the TV series’ iconic characters. Paul Williams’ songs, while not as catchy as the Gimbel and Fox TV series theme song, are still a tuneful bunch, with two of the best (“Oooooh Bop” and “Heartbeat”) added to the show after its 2007 Papermill Playhouse Original Cast Recording.

Happy Days fanatics in search of carbon copy reproductions of Fonzie, Richie, Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham and the rest will find in their place affectionate tributes which capture the essence of the characters rather than simply impersonating them.

Derek Keeling’s 1950s black-leather-jacketed starring roles in Grease (on Broadway), All Shook Up, and Life Could Be A Dream make him the perfect choice to bring his sexy swagger and sensational singing to Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli. L.A. musical theater favorite Misty Cotton sizzles and belts to perfection as the sexy Pinky Tuscadero. (Keeling and Cotton’s romantic “Dancing On The Moon” is an Act Two highlight.) Nineteen-year-old Derek Klena continues his fast track to leading man stardom as Richie, capturing his boy-next-door innocence and All-American charm and singing with the best of them. Tracy Lore once again disappears inside a role, this time as Marion Cunningham, singing the lovely “What I Dreamed Last Night” and tapping to its second act reprise to justified audience cheers. John Richard Petersen’s warm and wonderful performance as Howard Cunningham serves as a great tribute to the late Tom Bosley, who created the role.

As Richie’s three goofy sidekicks, Benjamin Goldsmith scores as Potsie, Cabrillo regular Estevan Valdes gives Chachi that singular Scott Baio strut, and Dane Biren steals scenes left and right as Ralph Malph. Tessa Grady is an adorable Joanie Cunningham and Holly Long a delightful Lori Beth.

There’s also some hilarious comic work by Nicholas Leinbach and Will Harris as the Malachi Brothers (and as Howard’s funniest Leopard brothers) and Jay Weber’s winning turn as Arnold.

The National Tour cast of eighteen has been upped to twenty-four at Cabrillo, making the dance sequences bigger and more exciting than ever, Charron’s terrifically energetic rockin’-and-rollin’ choreography executed by the production’s sensational ensemble of singers and dancers: Valentine Bezar (Marsha Simms), Simoné Denise Burch (Cindy Moon), Callie Carson (Pinkette Tina), Ryyn Chua (Johnny Oliver), Jessie Lee Coffman (Joyce James), Aubrey Elson (Paula Petralunga), Sarah Girard (Pinkette Lola), Keenon Hooks (Gil Crawford), Natasha Hugger (Susan Prescott), Tyler Muhlenkamp (Freddy Bascomb), and Joe Roth (Roger Phillips).

Lloyd Cooper deserves a big thumbs-up for his musical direction and for conducting the show’s get-up-and-dance 8-piece band. Thumbs up too to Walt Spangler’s colorful National Tour scenery, which brings to stage life Arnold’s red Naugahyde booths and the sitcom’s other well-known locales, and David C. Woolard’s collection of 50s full skirts and petticoats and lettermen’s jackets, also from the touring production. (Both sets and costumes are courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainmnet.) High marks go also to Christina L. Munich’s lighting, Jonathan Burke’s sound, and Mark Travis Hoyer’s hair and makeup design. Barry Pearl, Arnold in the National Tour, is associate producer. Christine Gibson is wardrobe supervisor, Gina Farina technical director, Char Brister crew captain, William Coiner production stage manager, and Anne Mureau assistant stage manager.

Cabrillo President & Chief Executive Officer Carole W. Nussbaum and Artistic Director Lewis Wilkenfeld have once again chosen a guaranteed audience pleaser. Happy Days The Musical is likely to keep kids and adults of any age entertained and yes Happy throughout its all too brief stay in Thousand Oaks.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks
–Steven Stanley
October 22, 2010
Photos: Ed Krieger

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