Theater Reviews

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Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J
Through Oct. 28

Clearly looking to capitalize on the seemingly inexhaustible appetite for theatrical versions of old movies and television shows, Garry Marshall has adapted his beloved '70s sitcom "Happy Days" for the musical stage.

And while the less than imaginatively titled "Happy Days -- A New Musical" doesn't exactly overwhelm with its creative elements, this production demonstrates it to be a real crowd-pleaser. While Broadway may be too critically daunting an environment for it to prosper, the show probably will make a killing on the road thanks to its nostalgic appeal to baby boomers.

The TV show's elements are faithfully re-created, from Arnold's Malt Shop to the Leopard Lodge to all of the familiar characters. Marshall's book essentially plays like a typical, albeit elongated, episode: As Richie Cunningham (Rory O'Malley) sardonically comments at one point, "Usually I can solve my problems in half an hour, but this one is a doozy."

It's unfortunate that the best plot line that Marshall could come up with is one having to do with Fonzie's (Joey Sorge) being asked to wrestle the comically menacing Malachi brothers (Tom Plotkin, Andrew Varela) as a fundraiser to save Arnold's from being torn down by rapacious real estate developers. Reluctant to admit the truth about his bad knee, the iconic greaser flees town, thereby threatening his romantic reunion with his sexy old flame Pinky (Felicia Finley).

The show very much makes Fonzie the central character, shortchanging Richie and barely featuring his buddies Ralph (Todd Buonopane) and Potsie (Christopher Ruth). One nice element involves Richie's mother Marion (Cynthia Ferrer) finding herself chafing at the constraints of being just a housewife.

Paul Williams' musical score is just OK, failing to produce any truly memorable songs or even effectively recalling the '50s-era rock that helped inspire the show in the first place. The best number is the brassy "What I Dreamed Last Night," a self-empowering performed by Marion, daughter Joanie (Natalie Bradshaw) and Pinky.

Sorge's Fonzie adds greatly to the proceedings. Although the actor initially seems to be doing little more than a rote Henry Winkler impersonation, he quickly registers with his own appealing charm and comic flair. Also terrific are Ferrer, whose Marion is totally lovable, and Finley, who provides Pinky with the necessary sex appeal and then some.

"Happy Days -- A New Musical" has just been announced as the spring season opener for the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., followed by a national tour beginning next September.

HAPPY DAYS -- A NEW MUSICAL
Presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse
Credits:
Music and lyrics: Paul Williams
Book by: Garry Marshall
Director: Gordon Greenberg
Choreographer: Michele Lynch
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Randy Hansen
Cast:
Fonzie: Joey Sorge
Richie: Rory O'Malley
Howard: Patrick Garner
Marion: Cynthia Ferrer
Joanie: Natalie Bradshaw
Ralph: Todd Buonopane
Potsie: Christopher Ruth
Chachi: Eric Schneider
Pinky: Felicia Finley
Arnold: Michael J. Farina
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