It’s easy to think of reasons why “Happy Days,” the likeable 1970s sitcom about the 1950s, should not be re-created as a musical. “Grease,” which preceded it, already treaded on the territory; episodic sitcom structure doesn’t lend itself so easily to adaptation; the characters are so closely associated with the actors who created them that a rehash could only be a series of tacky imitations. All true, and Garry Marshall, the sitcom’s creator who wrote the book and directs this production at his own Falcon Theater, solves none of these issues, while Paul Williams’ hodgepodge score just adds some self-inflicted wounds.
To be kind, what’s appearing at the Falcon clearly represents a work in progress, and that’s an understatement. Maybe the best comparison to watching this would be to sitting in on the early meetings of a team of sitcom writers, as they throw out all sorts of ideas, put them on their feet, and reject none of them.
This is musical theater as brainstorming session, whose primary purpose is to see what they’ve got. Right now, that’s a whole lot of not much.
Marshall and Williams simply haven’t determined what they’re going for. Do they want “Happy Days” to be sincere, winkingly self-referential, campy? Right now it’s all of that and more, depending on the scene, the actor, the song, the line, which means really it has no voice at all.
Instead of creating a straightforward reminiscence of a supposedly innocent time, which is what the sitcom did, they take stabs at turning this into a thematic contemplation on nostalgia itself. The Fonz, played with relaxed sincerity by former New Kid Joey McIntyre, must consider whether he’s still cool or whether he has to — gasp — change. Early on, it almost seems like this show might become to “Happy Days” what “Avenue Q” was to “Sesame Street,” a version of something innocent from the perspective of starting to know better.
The fact that this idea, if that’s what it was, is abandonedcomes as something of a relief. Its sentimental execution gave it the entertainment value of a dissertation on the metaphysical impossibility of change in the situation comedy.
It’s replaced by a more appropriate, but still plodding, tale in which Fonzie must decide whether to help out Mr. Cunningham (Wayne Duvall), desperate for a plaque from his Leopard Lodge colleagues, by teaming up with his would-be love interest Pinky Tuscadero (Audra Blaser) to wrestle the Malachi brothers (a very funny Paul C. Vogt and a not-so-funny Matt Merchant). If Fonzie doesn’t come to the rescue, then oh-so-loyal Richie (Rory O’Malley) will drag the cowardly Ralph Malph (an entertainingly frantic Ryan Bollman) into the ring to battle the bullies.
It’s a lot easier to swallow this kind of story when it’s only 22 minutes long and interrupted with commercials. But in nearly 2½ hours, Marshall works hard to fit in bits of everyone’s favorites — some Joanie and Chachi love scenes, for example. But most of it comes off as effortful, a fact that Marshall acknowledges: “Sorry you’re burdened with so many storylines,” Chachi tells Richie, in the funniest line of the evening, which still manages not to be funny.
By ditching much of the detritus at the start, Marshall could still do something with the book. After all, he’s nothing if not a forge-ahead, small-bore craftsman of skimpy storytelling, and in some ways it seems like he has not yet begun to write.
And Randy Skinner’s choreography shows some promise, even though the step-heaviness brings to mind an aerobics class.
The score, though, remains another matter.
Like the plot, the music is in shards, but it’s even more wholly undefined. There are a few melodies that are salvageable — some do-wop, the song fragments sung by Mr. C’s lodge-mates, some happy-sounding dance numbers. But these are few and far between. Mostly, there are generic, extremely limp sentimental efforts at Broadway ballads, as well as a strange touch of forward-sounding jazz riffs. There’s a little bit of everything, nothing very good, and a lot that — to be extremely polite about it — is just not cool.
Why not just craft it all as a tribute to the earliest rock ‘n’ roll, in the Bill Haley mode? The “Happy Days” theme song is just an effort to capture the sound of “Rock Around the Clock” anyway, and the show only really comes to life musically when the game cast finally gets around to singing the title number at the very end. It has a beat, and you can dance to it.
Marshall and Williams need to stop trying so hard and just focus on delivering the basics.