Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Happy Days" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at New Century Theatre

In the space of 24 hours I traveled from 1960s Detroit to 1950s Milwaukee, separated by about 400 miles and 10 years, but worlds apart. Penumbra Theatre's Detroit '67 is a sobering look at the musical highs and violent lows of that time and place, while Minneapolis Musical Theatre's production of the musical adaptation of the TV classic Happy Days presents an idealized version of the past, where people can't imagine the price of gas going above 12 cents, the worst insult is "sit on it," and fights are settled with a pie in the face and a wedgie. As such, it's faithful to the beloved TV show that I, and many Americans, grew up with. Not surprising since it was written by the show's creator Garry Marshall, with songs by Paul Williams, who's written many hits for The Carpenters and others. While the plot's a bit thin (it is based on a sitcom, after all), the familiar characters are there with their signature catch phrases and the songs are catchy in that '50s style, resulting in a fun and frivolous evening of happy nostalgia theater.

In what amounts to an extended episode of Happy Days, our gang is facing a crisis when beloved diner hangout Arnold's is in danger of being bought out by a large corporation. Richie and Fonzie and friends come up with a couple of ideas to raise money to match the bid, including a dance contest and a wrestling match. (How they're supposed to raise thousands of dollars through this, I'm not entirely sure, but I'll go with it.) Fonzie's ex, the super cool motorcycle-riding Pinky, returns to judge the dance conflict, and tensions run high with unfinished business between them. Fonzie agrees to wrestle his nemeses the Mallachi brothers, despite a secret shameful weakness - he has a bum knee. (Fonzie's getting old? How disappointing.) It takes Richie longer than his usual 30 minutes to solve this problem, but in the end our gang comes out on top and continues living those happy days.

Highlights of the show include:
Pinky and the Fonz
(Quinn Shadko and John Zeiler,
photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • The six-piece band just to the right of the stage sounds great playing these '50s pop tunes, both uptempo and ballad, as directed by Lori Maxwell.
  • The large cast is talented and enthusiastic, bringing great energy to the show.
  • Fonzie and Pinky are the most recognizable and specific characters. Quinn Shadko is a standout as Pinky. She always sounds lovely, but she also has Pinky's attitude, walk, and voice down pat - tough and smart on the outside, hiding a tender heart underneath. John Zeiler is her match as Fonzie, channeling Henry Winkler. Together they have a sweet and spicy chemistry as the central love story.
  • As boy next door Richie, Eric Heimsoth has the red hair, earnestness, and likeability needed for the character. Richie and his pals Ralph Malph (an expressive Matthew Englund), Potsie (an appropriately reserved Andrew Newman), and Chachi (a charming Kory LaQuess Pullam) create some great doo-wappy four-part harmony.
  • Lisa Denninger's Mrs. C and Briana Patnode's Joanie are a believable mother/daughter pair, and bring sweet harmony to the song "What I Dreamed Last Night."
  • I don't know anything about motorcycles, but what looked to be an authentic vintage bike was rolled out onstage, rounding out the character of Fonzie.
  • The musical is chock full of catch phrases, familiar to anyone who's watched the TV show: Richie's angry "bucko," Ralph Malph's gleeful "I still got it!," Chachi's admiring "waa waa waa," and of course, the Fonz with his "aaayyyy," "correctamundo," thumbs up, and signature comb movement.
  • While the mostly empty set leaves something to be desired, the period costumes are fun and bright; the leather jackets, blue jeans, bobby socks, poodle skirts, and saddle shoes perfectly represent the era. If some of the girls' dresses look like bad prom dresses, perhaps that's appropriate. Pinky outshines the rest in her fabulous pink frocks, as she should.
While there are a couple of strange jokes that didn't land well (including one about Bill Gates, who was 4 years old in 1959), and the show goes a bit too far into camp territory at times, on the whole it's joyful homage to a beloved TV show and iconic characters. These Happy Days are yours and mine, and continue at the New Century Theatre through May 17.

the Dial Tones - Kory LaQuess Pullam as Chachi, Eric Heimsoth as Richie,
Andrew Newman as Potsie, and Matthew Englund as Ralph Malph
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)