Alan Parker’s much-loved film comes to the stage in this exuberant touring production that originated at London’s Lyric Theatre. As in the movie, the roles (the principal ones, at least) are played by child actors. It’s New York in the 1930s, a city dominated by the gangland rivalry between Fat Sam and Dapper Dan. The latter has the upper hand, thanks to the advent of a new weapon, the splurge gun. Sam’s men are getting splattered, or ‘splurged’ at an alarming rate. This is organised paintballing. While the deaths are quite graphically executed, so to speak, the actors get up again and walk off, just like a child’s game. Sam strives to regain dominance by tracking down the source of the new guns. Meanwhile, the eponymous Bugsy is trying to raise the dough to get his new love interest, Blousey, to Hollywood…
As crime boss Fat Sam, Albie Snelson throws his weight around convincingly, portraying the long-suffering, the short fuse, to perfection. He is supported by a host of characters played by the slightly-older chorus, ensuring his scenes are a lot of fun. Jasmine Sakyiama’s statuesque gangster’s moll, Tallulah has a dignity and knowingness to her, but lacks the jadedness of Jodie Foster, but this production keeps almost everything upbeat. As Sam’s rival, Dandy Dan, Desmond Cole has an unquestionable authority.
Mia Lakha’s Blousey, the wannabe star, proves she can deliver the goods, belting out a couple of torch songs that suggest this Blousey will go far. Special mentions go to Aidan Oti for his sweet but downtrodden Fizzy, and Mohamed Bangura as burly boxer Leroy.
In the title role, the diminutive Gabriel Payne gives a phenomenal performance, with singing and dancing that takes my breath away but not, apparently, his. It’s as though Billy Elliott has turned to crime. His acting his top drawer. In fact, across the board, the stylised Noo Yoik accents are done well, suiting the snappy dialogue of Parker’s script. While the screenplay revels in its own cinematic artifice, the stage adaptation acknowledges its theatricality, in an almost Brechtian way. Fat Sam having to change his own scene, kvetching about it as he does so, is just one example.
The score is marvellous, with all music and lyrics by Paul Williams, and it’s a treat to be reminded of his brilliance. Drew McOnie’s lively choreography brings us all the period tropes of the dancing of the era but strings them together in a manner that seems fresh and new.
Children acting as adults shows us the childishness of the adults’ behaviour, leading to nothing but death and destruction. I would have liked more splurge in the climactic bloodbath, for the stage to be awash with foam and custard pies, but the point is made. Society needs to put down its guns and ditch the territorial attitude if any of us is to have a chance to survive.
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.