It’s rare thing to say this, but the musical of Happy Days is a stage production that could have actually benefited from jukebox tunes. For a show that helped put “Rock Around the Clock” back on the charts, the only nostalgic song to be found in the stage show is, yes, the theme song to Happy Days. The remaining songs are by Oscar-winner Paul Williams, and not one of them makes an impression. The same can be said for the show.
This is surprising, because series creator Garry Marshall wrote the book for the musical. Despite helming a number of hit films and stage shows since the series, Marshall’s book for the stage show barely contains enough plot for a single episode.
Basically, Arnold’s malt shop is in danger of being bulldozed by a developer, so the Fonz (Joey Sorge) agrees to a televised wrestling match to help save it; only Richie (Steven Booth) knows a reason why he shouldn’t wrestle; so the Fonz must risk losing his reputation and the heart of his longtime flame Pinky Tuscadero (Felicia Finley). Meanwhile, Mrs. Cunningham (Cynthia Ferrer) wants to be more than a housewife. Also: Joanie (Whitney Bashor) loves Chachi (Chris Fore).
To use a phrase that may be Happy Days‘ most enduring contribution to the American pop culture lexicon, this show might be where 1950s-nostalgia musicals jump the shark. The jokes are corny, there’s very little drama to drive the plot and the bland, forgettable songs do no justice to an era that’s defined by its music.
What is memorable is Sorge’s work as the Fonz; even with thin material, he does a remarkable job of aping the body language and mannerisms that Henry Winkler brought to the part.
On TV, Happy Days was about an idealized, unironic look at the late 1950s, but the musical doesn’t recapture the energy of the show, nor offer any fresh perspective on the material. In fact, it’s much weaker than an average rerun (well, maybe not the one where Potsie sang at the rodeo). Perhaps this musical is for baby boomers, such as the crowd that gave a standing ovation on opening night.
But those looking for a first-rate night of nostalgic theater may be better off waiting for Jersey Boys in June. Ayyyyyy!