HAPPY DAYS: A NEW MUSICAL AT THE BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME
Theatre Run: Tuesday 22 - Saturday 26 April 2014
Performance Reviewed: Tuesday 22 April 2014 (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Happy Days is something of an oddity to review and fully digest as a brand new musical production (something which, as its marketing repeatedly assures us, it is) given that it leans so heavily on nostalgia and formula to the point that it not only feels dated but also heavily derivative. It seems an unfair critique to labour over the antiquity of a show based on a 1970’s sitcom which itself was set 20 years prior, but there is very little trace of modernity, irony or invention to practically everything Happy Days offers. This may, of course, be precisely the point, owing to the TV series' original creator Garry Marshall having penned the shows book, and there is likely a fairly broad demographic who will get a kick from such a faithfully styled recreation of the hugely popular show being brought to the stage, but for the rest of us it’s difficult to shake the feeling that his has all been done and seen before with greater fire in its belly and punch in its execution. Take Grease, Footloose and a soupcon of Hairspray, blend them together whilst simultaneously diluting their respective character and vim, and you pretty much have Happy Days - a perfectly inoffensive yet not particularly effective simulacra of the feel-good, period musicals of yesteryear.
As mentioned, fans of the show will likely get extra mileage here, as by all accounts Happy Days looks and sounds notably authentic. The cast are particularly well likened to their original counterparts, Tom Rogers and Philip Gladwell evoke the 50’s aesthetic of the original show with solid set/costume and lighting design respectively, and whilst the mostly original score by Paul Williams is generally devoid of any memorable numbers that’ll have you humming them after the curtain falls, it does ring true to the era with a healthy dose of jive-lite and doo-wop that could easily pass for rejected Dreamboats and Petticoats scoring.
The central narrative is perhaps the most divisive element of all - atypical, episodic and ultimately inconsequential. It is littered with some fun characters, notably Ben Freeman doing terrific character work in bringing Henry Winkler's iconic Fonz to life, but it’s all so humdrum, familiar and predictable that what should be charming and endearing instead falls flat, and is all wrapped up in the kind of story-of-the-week plot that would feel half-baked and underwhelming even in the shows original form. There are far too many examples to cite, but subplots and character arcs are shoehorned in then forgotten about with alarming regularity, and the show seems completely incapable of original thought or genuine drama. At times you can almost feel the creatives checking off a list of musical theatre staples - and why settle on just a televised contest finale (a la Hairspray) or a graduation prom (a la almost every high-school based musical ever) when you can opt for both? It’s an issue that likewise extends to the shows music and dialogue as well - a laddish pep talk about women being like motor vehicles and all the associated metaphors, a song proclaiming music to be the language of love... you get the idea.
Where the show does attempt to infuse a dash of originality, irony or self-awareness is in a handful of meta quips at the expense of modern pop culture. Cheeky nods and winks to the likes of The Great British Bake Off, reality TV as a whole and even some postmodern fun courtesy of cast member Cheryl Baker’s 'Bucks Fizz' background, whilst generally as subtle as a sledgehammer, all hint at a funnier, more intelligent and knowing show that perhaps could have been. That being said, the best of these, a rather genius quip at the cultural impact of ‘jumping the shark’, seemed to similarly leap over the heads of the majority of the audience as well.
Of the cast, it must be said that the assembled company are mostly extremely well suited to their roles as mentioned, and they all seem incredibly game at doing their level best to elevate the generally pedestrian material they are given to work with. Joining Freeman’s solid performance and vocals are the aforementioned Cheryl Baker along with James Paterson as Marion and Howard Cunningham, and whilst their characters are painted in the same broad strokes as the rest of the show, they at least seem to bubble with energy and charisma and seem to be having an infectious degree of fun. Emma Harold is spirited and energised, though regrettably underused as the burgeoning and excitable Joanie Cunningham, Henry Davis and Sam Robinson display impressive physiques and equally impressive comic versatility in a trifecta of supporting roles, whilst Jason Winter, Andrew Waldron, Eddie Myles and Scott Waugh get to occasionally offer fleeting glimpses of talent as a central group of young friends, particularly in Act II opener ‘Run’ which proves to be one of the shows more kinetic and engaging musical sequences.
Former Sugababe Heidi Range, meanwhile, looks suitably sultry and sexy as homecoming bombshell Pinky Tuscadero, but her line delivery was decidedly one note (see: forced sass), her diction a trifle muddied and vocals limited to an extent that makes her surname seem borderline ironic. It’s unfortunate, given that some of her songs do seem to harbour the potential to be some of the more catchier and memorable moments of the show in the hands of a more capable musical theatre performer.
In the show’s programme, composer Paul Williams welcomes the audience to ‘simpler, sweeter times’. Whilst that is most definitely a fair summation of the generally fun, light-hearted and unassuming experience Happy Days offers, it also inadvertently draws attention to its most glaring shortcomings. Musical theatre has moved on since such times, and so have the expectations and demands of the modern, savvy theatre-going crowd. For those to whom the twee, regressive world depicted on stage here is catered towards, Happy Days will most likely be a very welcome, family-friendly and accessible slice of nostalgia given a perfunctory but pleasant musical theatre treatment. For everyone else though, it is a show that, jarringly, may be a brand new production with new, original music but ultimately one that ends up feeling as dated and aged as it’s now fourty-year old namesake.
One mostly for the enthusiasts, perhaps.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * (3 out of 5 Stars)
+ Fun, family-friendly and accessible
+ Freeman as the Fonz and some of the supporting cast are solid
+ Faithful evocation of the 1950's era
+ Fans of the original show will find plenty to enjoy
- Unoriginal, inconsequential story
- Humour and general approach feels derivative and dated
- Range is a disappointingly limited leading lady
- Original soundtrack lacks memorable numbers
- Overriding sense of (diluted) Déjà vu
HAPPY DAYS: A NEW MUSICAL is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 22 to Saturday 26 April.
Alternatively, call Ticket Sales directly on 0844 338 5000 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of Happy Days: A New Musical were provided courtesy of the Birmingham Hippodrome directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.