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Happy Days, A New Musical

Chachi (Mike D'Amico) , Ralph (Schyler Conaway), Fonzie (Nick Varricchio), Richie ( Herb Porter), Potsie (Michael Linden),                                                        photos by John Vecchiolla



                                                     By Ed Lieberman


Westchester Broadway Theatre’s latest offering, Happy Days, A New Musical, based upon the popular 1974-84 TV series set in the 1950’s, begins with a beautiful tableau, featuring the cast in a frozen lindy hop, while Richie Cunningham, played by Herb Porter, sets the narrative. Unfortunately, after a few minutes, the players had to get on with the show, which largely went downhill from there.


The show is essentially an extended episode of the sitcom, although with the impression that it takes place at or near the end of the series: Arnold’s, the malt shop hangout of Arthur Fonzarelli (known to all as “the Fonz”), Richie Cunningham, his friends Ralph and Potsie, and all Jefferson High students, is facing demolition by a developer intent upon building something called a “mall.” A last-ditch effort to save the place is devised to raise funds so that Arnold can outbid the developer for the property. The kids arrange a dance party, with prizes from Mr. Cunningham’s hardware store; Mrs. C bakes pies; and Pinky Tuscadero, an old flame of the Fonz, comes back to town for the festivities (and to reconnect with Fonzie). But despite their best efforts, the funds come up short, so Arnold’s last chance is a wrestling match between the Fonz and two minor characters from the show’s past: the over-the-top wrestling Malachi Brothers. What no one knows except Richie is that Fonzie has a bum knee that can be permanently injured if he wrestles (apparently no one in this town is aware that wrestling is scripted). Fonzie has an uncharacteristic crisis in confidence and disappears. Richie and Ralph reluctantly (very reluctantly) volunteer to take his place. Of course, in the end -- after the match begins -- Fonzie comes back and saves the day.


Fonzie and the Town Girls (left to right): Aubrey Mae Davis, Hannah Kate Wilson, Nick Varricchio, Samantha Gardner, Colleen Campbell.


The cast was likeable, and did what they could with what they were given. Two standout performances were by Maria Logan, as Pinky Tuscadero, and Nick Varricchio, as the Fonz. Ms. Logan captures the sexy biker babe essence of her character and the two of them recapture the romantic flame that previously existed between their characters. Other outstanding performances were turned in Nicholas Park and Ian Parmenter, as the Milachi Brothers. The costumes, by Janelle Berte (and wig/hair design by Gerard Kelly) were spot on, with the guys wearing rolled up jeans, the gals wearing crinolines, bobby sox and saddle shoes. Next to them, the spectacular short shorts, bare midriff and fringe jacket worn by Pinky would have stood out even without lighting (by WBT regular Andrew Gmoser). With the exception of the wrestling match, the choreography, by Director/Choreographer Jonathan Stahl, captured the nostalgic 1950’s dances of the show’s setting. The sets, by Steve Loftus, were also true to the sitcom, using the now familiar jukebox (no doubt recycled from the recent production of Always, Patsy Cline) and booths to recreate Arnold’s. Unfortunately, the sound was uneven; much of the dialogue by Richie and other characters was garbled, and the orchestra often overpowered the singers, rendering the lyrics in the musical numbers unintelligible.   


As mentioned, the cast was not given much to work with here, which is probably why the show has never had a Broadway or off-Broadway run. Despite having been written by Garry Marshall, who created the series, the plot does not ring true for those familiar with the sitcom: Fonzie’s appeal was always that he could accomplish anything just by snapping his fingers. He never had to actually do anything. That he would actually wrestle anyone, much less” professional” wrestlers, would never have made it into the TV series. And the choreography of the wrestling match was amateurish (a strobe light would have been useful here).  Likewise, the score, by Paul Williams, is largely forgettable. Indeed, WBT’s publicity compares the show with Grease, which was set in approximately the same time period. The comparison, however, is not favorable to this show. Grease had memorable music, and it had the advantage of not having to deal with characters well known to its audience. With knowledge and familiarity comes limitations.


Having said that, there was some interesting social commentary thrown in to make the show more relevant for today’s audiences.  At one point the Cunninghams were leaving the house and everyone was saying what they were going to be doing that day, to which Mrs. Cunningham says: “Starting dinner.” Later, however, she says that her apron strings felt like chains, and at the end of the show, she offers to help out at Mr. C’s store, and comes up with a marketing idea:  different colored . . . plungers!


The finale


Happy Days, A New Musical, will be running at the Theatre, through July 17th. Performances are Thursday-Sunday, with matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

WBT is at 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY.

Box Office: (914) 592-2268.