Bright, sparkling and cheerful

Happy Trio: Cheryl Baker as Mrs Cunningham, Ben Freeman as The Fonz and Heidi Range as Pinky Tuscadero. Picture: Paul Coltas

Happy Days - A new musical

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

THERE is something infectiously . . . well, happy, about Happy Days. There is only one song you know, plenty you will never hear again, but it is bright, sparkling, cheerful, and manages to catch some of the wholesome innocence of 1959, when it was set, with a side order of fun.

Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, The Fonz, was a hero to a certain generation growing up in the 70s and early 80s when the TV series spent a decade on our TV screens (spread hands with both thumbs up and say “Ay”); he was anti- establishment, a drop out, who attracted girls like blossom attracts bees, yet  as a rebel was respectful to elders, and girls, cool, but with a polite manner.

Ben Freeman is never going to be The Fonz, it is an impossible ask, the Fonz is Henry Winkler, end of story, and even that was 30 years or more ago; but Ben is a good second choice. He has the mannerisms, the fear of his quaffed hair being messed, and has a decent voice to go with the trademark leather jacket, white tee-shirt and jeans.

He has had a long apprenticeship starting with The Sound of Music at 13 followed by Grange Hill and Emmerdale and then taking on the challenge of the West End creating Norman in Dreamboats and Petticoats, followed by Legally Blonde and more recently Wicked.

His love interest is Pinky, a love that took a hit years ago but is back on track when the touring motorbike star returns to help save Arnold’s restaurant – the centre of the social universe in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Pinky is played with a confident brashness by Heidi Range, longstanding Sugarbabe, who can belt out a song or give it a romantic softness.

And still among the pop groups we have Cheryl Baker, once of Bucks Fizz, as Marion Cunningham, Richie’s mum, who has one of the clearest voices you are every likely to hear in musical theatre, looking after Richie, the original star of the TV series, played by Scott Waugh and his sister Joanie, played by Emma Harrold.

Then there is dad, Howard, James Paterson, who runs the hardware store and Arnold, Ray Gardner, who has the two booth restaurant, and the rest of the bunch such as Joannie’s would be boyfriend Charch, Fonz’s cousin, played by Eddie Miles.

Happy Days of yore, the original cast of the TV series

 Doubling up we have the baddies, ex-jailbirds Count Malachi, Henry Davis, and his brother Jumpy, Sam Robinson, making an impressive professional debut. The pair also appear as Leopards, a sort of Lions Club outfit in the town, as well as playing James Dean and Elvis . . . don’t ask.

The story is simple, Arnold’s is under threat from development by some firm called Ronald McDonalds, the customers set out to save it and that leads to a proposed wrestling match between the evil Malachis (boos here please) and their sworn enemy, The Fonz at the annual picnic!

Andrew Wright, the director and choreographer, keeps up a good pace, helped by a remarkably flexible set from Tom Rogers which folds into houses, diners, parks, a garage and anything else needed.

Wright’s credits as choreographer include Singin’ in the Rain so there is a classy Broadway sophistication about the hoofing.

Garry Marshall’s book has a few modern references but does have a late 50s, small-town America feel about it while the music and lyrics from Paul Williams are pleasant rather than memorable with the theme song Happy Days perhaps underused with just snatches in the opening number and a short version at the end. With no real nostalgic numbers, songs people know, it was always going to be a big ask to get people up on their feet and bopping in the aisles at the end, but, to its credit, original music lifts the show out of the jukebox musical category.

There are a few cultural references in the songs such as Fonzie singing sadly about leaving town in Maybe Its Time to Move On with the line “splashed by an Edsel* driven by a jerk”. 

Producer Amy Anzel, who was in the US production of the musical as a Pinkette, has battled long and hard to bring the show to the UK, a struggle well documented in C4’s The Sound of Musicals. So was it all worth it? Move hands apart raise both thumbs, give a hint of a shrug and say after me “Ay”. To 26-04-14.

Roger Clarke

*The Edsel sold, abysmally, between 1958 and 1960, around 116,000 cars, less than half the reak-even point, costing Ford the equivalent of almost £3billion in today’s money. Incidentally, Edsel chief designer Roy Brown Jnr was shipped off to England after the Edsel debacle where he designed the classic, top selling 1962 Ford Cortina - and he drove his own personal Edsel into his 80s.

22-04-14 

Contents page Hippodrome Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre