Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th June, 2014
People have fond memories of the hit TV show of thirty years ago. Every week millions tuned in to see the wholesome adventures of the Cunningham family and their friends in a somewhat idealised Milwaukee of 1959. This new musical brings back the characters and indeed the original creator and writer of the show, Garry Marshall. It’s all fairly innocuous but with a sprinkling of double entendres that would have sailed over my head when I was a young viewer.
Tom Rogers’s set is shaped like a jukebox of the period, with foldaway flats to create different locations quickly and efficiently. Most of the action takes place at Arnold’s diner with its chequerboard floor and iconic signage. This hub of the community is under threat of demolition because of plot reasons and so everyone rallies around to stage fund-raising events (a dance contest, a wrestling match) to save it.
The gang’s all here: perky Richie Cunningham (Scott Waugh), his friends class clown Ralph Malph (Andrew Waldron) and Potsie Weber (Jason Winter) – in keeping with US television tradition, they all look far too old to be at high school.
Star of the show is Ben Freeman (off of Emmerdale) as cult figure Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, channelling Henry Winkler’s classic moves and catchphrases. Freeman brings a certain charisma to this Don Juan in a leather jacket, who talks to his motorbike as if it’s his horse, this chick-magnet, this lone cool guy in a community of squares. He has a good singing voice too.
As does former Sugababe Heidi Range as Fonzie’s ex, Pinky Tuscadero – although she speaks her dialogue like a curious hybrid of Bette Davies and Foxy Cleopatra.
Cheryl Baker IS Marion Cunningham, looking and sounding the part in a revelation of a performance. I could have done without the Bucks Fizz references – I was already enjoying her doing something unrelated to her Eurovision success. As her husband Howard, the show’s cosy father figure, James Paterson evokes shades of Tom Bosley, while making the role his own.
It’s frothy fun with some hilarious lines and some corny jokes, but it’s let down somewhat by the weakness of the score. Music and lyrics are by the otherwise great Paul Williams but this is a long way from his best work. The songs lack the wit and catchiness of scores such as Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors, although they are well staged and choreographed by director Andrew Wright.
The energetic cast throw themselves into the musical numbers but you really just want them to get on with the comedy. Nominal villains the Malachi Brothers, two annoying show-offs are not written the way I would have chosen in order to inject some conflict into the story. Henry Davis and Sam Robinson work hard to sell these characters to us but you tire of them rather quickly.
Under Greg Arrowsmith’s musical direction, the live band sounds great – not least the splendid brass playing of Greg Nicholas and Matt Parry. The show just needs better tunes to carry us between reprises of the TV theme song.
There is dramatic irony aplenty as characters mis-predict the future (No one will ever want to watch people baking on television) and some hints at the changes that women’s role in society will undergo, even if this is undermined by independent woman Pinky’s aspirations to own a nice kitchen
All in all Happy Days is an enjoyable couple of hours, the material elevated by the hard work and talent of all those involved in the performance.