Sara King as a Car Hop, Scott Anthony as
“The Fonz” and Brittany Carricato as a
Car Hop in Happy Days – A New Musical.
Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.
Happy Days, A New Musical

Book by Garry Marshall

Music & Lyrics by Paul Williams

Based on the Paramount Pictures television series Happy Days, created by Garry Marshall

Directed by Lee Buckholz

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

As a long-running television series that enjoyed enormous popularity, Happy Days underwent several transformations, beginning as a nostalgic but thoughtful coming-of-age scenario focusing on the character of Richie Cunningham and set in the 1950s, and ending as a sideshow of ham-fisted comedy that pandered unabashedly to the audience. So the fact that its creators have turned it into a musical suitable for all ages seems entirely natural.

The book does an admirable job of capturing the spirit of the show from the height of its success, neither as affecting as the early episodes nor as insipid as the final seasons. It delivers a cheery and uncomplicated story laced with a healthy dose of self-awareness that grounds the show in important ways. The venerable center of the Happy Days universe, Arnold’s Malt Shop, is threatened with extinction unless enough money can be raised to outbid the big developer who will bulldoze it over for a new shopping concept called a “mall.” Improbably, the “gang” attempts a variety of schemes to accomplish this, chiefly a wrestling match between the “Fonz” and the Malachi brothers. But if you imagine that the details of the plot are actually meaningful in a show like this, you probably should not waste your time. It is merely a structure upon which to hang a succession of comic scenes and brief show tunes of varying quality.

Overall, the score is merely serviceable, with only a few memorable songs. But as is the custom at Derby Dinner, the staging is solid, with an abundance of energy and well-plotted choreography that keeps a spritely pace; and the cast is equipped with the skills necessary to sell even the lesser moments. The best songs include “Snap,” a tidy catalog of Fonzie’s signature trademarks (such as “Aaaay!” and “Whoa!”); and the testament to Ralph Malph’s cowardice, “Run,” that is cleverly staged for maximum comic effect. A small note of thoughtfulness is allowed in “What I Dreamed Last Night,” wherein Marion Cunningham and her daughter, Joanie, sing about the position of women in post-war America; and Howard Cunningham’s lodge brothers deliver a riotously silly presentation of “Leopards Are We.” Many of the finer moments of director Lee Buckholz’ work were characterized by such an embrace of the absurd, as when the Fonz’s paen to ennui, “Aaaay’mless,” includes roller-skating car hops festooned with automobile costume-props, cheekily spritzing him with water bottles as they emulate passing traffic. It was just plain goofy but beautifully captured the period and the popular culture’s later fascination with it. 

As in the original show, Richie becomes something of a supporting character in his own story as the spotlight more closely follows Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli. The two are played by Kyle Braun and Scott Anthony, respectively, and it is difficult to imagine better choices among the local talent pool. Mr. Braun’s wholesome, boyish good looks perfectly embody the steadfast and true young protagonist, while Mr. Anthony brings the correct measure of macho arrogance, or “cool,” tempered with integrity. They may not make you forget the original, iconic performances, but they certainly remind you of what made them so memorable in the first place and tread a fine line in avoiding caricature – a very real trap with characters such as these. As Pinky Tuscadero, Sandra Rivera delivered the sass and swagger necessary, although her unflattering costume did her no favors; and Wesley Edwards gave Chachi more verve and presence than the slight character would seem to merit, with sure comic timing and sharp dance moves.

Equally enjoyable was the work of Adam Shaff as Ralph Malph; and Joey Mirabile and Lem Jackson were a riot as the nefarious Malachi brothers. The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably, and the ensemble as a whole sang and danced in fine style.

The outstanding costumes were by Sharon Murray Harrah and were essential in establishing period and character in a production that necessarily deemphasizes set design because of the in-the-round staging. I particularly liked the car hops’ outfits and the careful attention to crafting the image of wholesome sexuality that exemplifies the period and the continuing nostalgia for viewing it through rose-colored glasses.

In a nutshell, Happy Days, A New Musical is an average script and score made more enjoyable than it perhaps deserves to be through the great good spirits and professionalism of the cast and crew. Derby Dinner Playhouse knows how to put on a show like this, and they do not let the audience down.

Happy Days, A New Musical

April 3 – May 13, 2012

Derby Dinner Playhouse

525 Marriott Drive

Clarksville, IN 47129