Attempting to recover from key staff exits and a financial crisis that very nearly closed its doors, the troubled Paper Mill Playhouse has valiantly embarked on a new season. Opener is “Happy Days — A New Musical,” inspired by the classic television sitcom that had a 10-year run beginning in 1974. But despite its built-in family appeal, the tuner is a limp “Grease” retread, with jitterbugging Midwest teens in search of the first rush of affection and acceptance. Those familiar with the characters of old may find it all nostalgically endearing if they can get over the indifferent period score and woefully strained book.
Premiered last year to tepid response at the Falcon Theater in Burbank, Calif., the show was revamped in an August workshop at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals, which has scheduled a return mainstage engagement of a new production next spring prior to a national tour beginning in fall 2008.
Central focus finds a frisky group of Milwaukee high school students planning a fund-raising dance contest and wrestling match to save their beloved drive-in malt shop from demolition. Chief architect of the plan is Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli (Joey Sorge) whose on-again/off-again romance with Pinky Tuscadero (Felicia Finley) fuels the narrative’s restrained passion and gooey love songs.
Sidebar is the wholesome Cunningham family, led by hardware store owner Howard (Patrick Garner), his tap-dancing, pie-baking wife (Cynthia Ferrer) and their clean-cut kids, Richie (Rory O’Malley) and obnoxious sister, Joanie (Natalie Bradshaw).
Garry Marshall, creator of the TV series, has devised the comicbook scenario, which the actors seem to revel in comfortably despite its mawkish setup.
Sorge re-creates the Fonz with the perfect balance of conceit and black-leather-jacket brawn and humor. Blond bombshell Finley (“The Wedding Singer”) is an appealing boy-toy, and Todd Buonopane and Christopher Ruth get some sappy mileage as Fonzie’s slap-happy buddies.
The tunes by Paul Williams reflect the flavor of the ’50s, from the guys’ adoration of the girls to a mock re-creation of James Dean and Elvis. There is a plaintive reflection by Pinky and the girls in “What I Dreamed Last Night,” and the title tune provides a rousing, crowd-pleasing encore.
The inane plot, of course, matters little. Nor do some very strained jokes, one of which concerns the unlikely future of computers. The energetic choreography by Michelle Lynch makes much of the action pleasingly palatable, even a sock-hop finale that finds the ensemble armed with bathroom tub plungers.
Designed by Walt Spangler, Arnold’s functional malt and burger hangout serves for most of the action, while Fonzie’s motorcycle is a snappy prop and David C. Woolard’s period costumes ably reflect an era.
One can only hope the nostalgic nonsense will be a good financial draw for the ailing Playhouse.