Scripter Garry Marshall has fashioned what could be likened to an episode of his iconic ’70s TV sitcom, “Happy Days,” into an energetic but disappointing two-hour-plus tuner. All the ingredients for success are in place, including an excellent ensemble well grounded in the character tics of the original TV cast; helmer Gordon Greenberg, who provides capable guidance; and period-perfect choreography Michele Lynch. What’s lacking is the infectious humor of the original show, while the Paul Williams score displays little of Williams’ renowned melodic inventiveness.
Story, set in late ’50s Milwaukee, has the Cunninghams and friends teaming to save Arnold’s Drive-In from the wrecking ball. The solution revolves around a fund-raising wrestling match pitting the indomitable Fonz (Joey Sorge) against his lifelong foes, the Malachi Brothers (Matt Merchant, Matt Walker). Along the way, the Fonz rekindles his dormant romance with his distaff equal, Pinky Tuscadero (Felicia Finley).
The humor is strained, depending too much on the audience’s sense of ’50s nostalgia and memories of the long-running TV series (1974-84), revved up by an over-infusion of such Fonz-isms as “Sit on it” and “Correctamundo.” It is telling that the best song in the show is the reprise of the “Happy Days” TV theme by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. Williams offers a pedestrian, programmatic score that is more intent on moving the plot along than making a musical impression. The songs offer scant resemblance to the zesty pop sensibility of the ’50s. Exceptions are “Romeo Midnight,” “Oooooh Bop” and “Hot Love,” impressively crooned by the Dial-Tones, the callow a capella quartet composed of Richie (Steven Booth), Chachi (Chris Fore), Potsie (Justin Michael Duval) and Ralph Malph (James Michael Lambert).
“Happy Days — A New Musical” is blessed with two outstanding performances that do hark back to the vitality of the original TV series. Sorge presents a dead on re-creation of Henry Winkler’s original Fonz. All the mannerisms are in place, from the commanding, perfectly timed finger snap to the exasperated rolling of his eyes. Sorge embodies the Fonz’s amalgam of “I’ve got a black belt in cool” bravado and reluctant tenderness. His vocal chops aren’t bad either as displayed in the upbeat “Snap” and the reflective “Maybe It’s Time to Move On.”
Finley sizzles as Pinky Tuscadero. Powering her way through “The Pink’s in Town” and “Message in the Music,” she gives credence to Pinky’s status as the Fonz’s equal. Finley also imbues Pinky with slow-burn sensuality with “Legend in Leather” and “Dancing on the Moon” (in duet with Sorge).
Offering the only valid comedy in the show are Merchant and Troubadour Theater Company founder Walker, who chew up every available bit of scenery as the villainous Malachi Brothers. Also notable is Cynthia Ferrer’s Marion, the typical ’50s housewife who reveals her repressed dreams in the poignant “What I Dreamed Last Night” (in duet with Whitney Bashor’s endearing Joanie).
The production is enhanced by the modular sets of Walt Spangler and the period-perfect designs of David C. Woolard (costumes)and Judi Lewin (hair, wigs, makeup).
“Happy Days — A New Musical” has improved considerably since its 2006 debut at Garry Marshall’s Burbank-based Falcon Theater. It still needs an infusion of comedic and melodic pizzazz and inventiveness if it is to have legs for a potential trip to Gotham.