Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Happy Days Are Here Again at HART

Riley Irvine and Kieran Thomas with Ensemble
Photo by Carl Dahlquist

By Tina Arth

The more complex and scary the world gets, the more we all need a chance to occasionally sit back and revel in a mythical past when everything was just dandy – say, 1959? That’s exactly the experience director Chris Byrne set out to deliver with HART’s current production of Happy Days, a 2008 musical based on the iconic sitcom, and written by the sitcom’s creator, Garry Marshall (with music and lyrics by Paul Williams). For a couple of hours, “these happy days are yours and mine” and the audience is back in Milwaukee with the Cunninghams, Arthur Fonzarelli, Chachi, Arnold, Potsie, Ralph and the rest of the crew. As a work of theatre it’s not great art, but it’s a lot of fun, there’s plenty of singing and dancing, and the cast and production team pull it off with surprising panache.

As the show opens, everything is not “just dandy” in town – Arnold’s shake shop, mecca for the town’s teens, is facing the wrecking ball to make room for a proposed mall. The solution is to raise enough money to buy out the project by holding a dance contest (did they really think this through?) with additional funds expected from a titanic wrestling match between the evil Malachi brothers and The Fonz. Further complications: Richie Cunningham’s girlfriend Loribeth wants an engagement ring before the kids leave for college. Joanie loves Chachi, and Chachi loves Joanie, but neither one is brave enough to break the ice. Mrs. C bakes a mean pie, but she really wants to get out of the kitchen and help out at the hardware store.  Mr. C wants to do something great so that his lodge brothers will give him a plaque. Fonzie’s ex, Pinky Tuscadero, is coming back to town, and neither she nor The Fonz knows quite how they feel about each other. Worst of all, Fonzie has an old knee injury, and wrestling the Malachis could mean permanent damage – but of course The Fonz can’t admit to any weakness, so he’s in quite a bind. Of course everything works out in the end, and another generation of teens will be able to hang out at Arnold’s.

The show is built around Fonzie, and Nick Serrone was an inspired choice for the role. He’s an experienced actor who understands subtle parody, and he grasps the finer points of playing of The Fonz without going too far over the top – not an easy task with a character so completely associated with Henry Winkler.  Serrone’s timing, sardonic facial expressions, and overall physicality carry a lot of the show. Serrone’s principal co-stars are definitely Andrew Hallas (Richie Cunningham) and Elise Byrne (Pinky Tuscadero). Hallas plays Richie as stolid, sincere – not the most exciting guy in town, but the one you can always rely on – in other words, pretty much the same as the way Ron Howard played the role on TV. While audiences had a decade to watch The Fonz and Richie, Pinky Tuscadero only appeared in a few episodes, so Byrne has a bit more room to maneuver – she creates a hard-edged rebel with tons of attitude and a heart of gold. The role calls for a skilled dancer and vocalist, and Byrne comes out with both guns blazing as she belts out the show’s biggest numbers and dances up a storm.

Andy Roberts and Tanner Morton have a lot of fun as the Malachi brothers and in other cameos.  The rest of the cast aims for some level of restraint, but these two make no pretense of realism, and their burlesque-like performances add another element of fun to the show. Sarah Ominski and Woody Woodbury are a solid duo as Marion and Howard Cunningham, and Riley Irvine’s “Joannie” is cute as a button. Happy Days is in many ways a dancer’s show (I’d love to see it on a big stage with a huge cast for some of the dance numbers), and Kate Jahnsen’s choreography is imaginative and lively. In addition to Byrne, some of the best dancing comes from Irvine and Kieran Thomas (as Chachi), but the entire cast (even those who clearly have no dance training) manages the ensemble numbers nicely.

Sandy Libonati’s vocal direction has yielded a solid ensemble for more than 24 songs (not counting the oh-so-memorable Happy Days theme). Director Chris Byrne did triple duty (and more), and she has done a superb job of creating the ‘50s ambience with her set and costume design.  Ward Ramsdell’s lighting design nicely augments the relatively spare physical set with a series of projected images, and William Crawford’s “Arnold’s” storefront is so cute I really wished it could be center stage.

I can definitely recommend Happy Days as a fun, completely family-friendly show that rings lots of nostalgia bells for those of us who were fans of the sitcom, but that will also appeal to younger audiences who just want to have a good time watching a lively, upbeat show.

Happy Days is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington Street, Hillsboro through Sunday, June 17th with 7:30 p.m. performances on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.

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