Those of you with fond memories of the long-running Happy Days sitcom may enjoy the Manatee Players’ current production of the musical version of the show, a collaboration between the series’ creator, Garry Marshall, and songwriter Paul Williams. On the other hand, you may find those memories better served by tuning in to the reruns on TV—they always seem to pop up somewhere, and it’s easier to swallow some of the intentional silliness on the small screen than the live stage.
The original, which ran from 1974 to 1984, was itself a nostalgia-driven show, with its setting of 1950s Milwaukee and its stereotypical characters: earnest young Richie Cunningham, leather-clad biker-mechanic Fonzie, homemaker mom Marion, typical TV dad Howard, etc. Naturally, everyone hung out at Arnold’s for burgers and fries, and that’s where we first meet the characters in this stage version, which originated in Burbank in 2006.
Saving Arnold’s from real estate developers is the plotline for this Happy Days, along with bringing back together Fonzie (Travis Rogers) and Pinky Tuscadero (Taylor Elizabeth), who apparently broke up a while ago. Attempts to raise money to beat the developers’ bid for the property include a dance contest and a televised wrestling match between Fonzie and the “evil” Malachi brothers. But Fonzie has a big secret, one which best friend Richie (Jason Ellis) intends to reveal unless Fonzie bows out. Will the match take place? Will Richie’s sister Joanie (Holly Rizzo) mature enough to hook up with Fonzie’s cousin Chachi (Sam Silverberg)? Will Richie propose to longtime girlfriend Lori Beth (Katie Priest)? What do you think?
All of this sounds like it could be harmless enough fun, but in reality many of the script’s jokes—even the referential ones that wink at the original’s quirks—fall flat. And most of Williams’ songs are far from memorable, although the women of the cast fare somewhat better than average with the number What I Dreamed Last Night, and the Fonzie-led Heartbeat at least expresses some intent. Too many of the numbers feel aimless and unfinished.
Most of the cast members are very young, and while director-choreographer Cory Boyas may have tried, he’s not able to really make their performances confident or part of a coherent whole. Perhaps longer rehearsals or more experienced actors could bring more pizzazz to the show, but at its best this Happy Days would probably feel a pale imitation of the original.
The production continues through Jan. 29; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.