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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Happy Days: A New Musical
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Lucky Stiff and Solitary Confinement

Carolyn McPhee and Andrew Ruggieri
Photo by Timeless Present Photography
It's been almost 40 years since the hit TV show "Happy Days" was on the air, yet the iconic characters of the "The Fonz," Richie Cunningham, Potsie, Joanie, and Pinky Tuscadero are most likely still ingrained in the memories of anyone who watched the weekly escapades of this group of Milwaukee friends in the 1950s. With a book by the show's creator Garry Marshall and a score by Oscar-winning composer Paul Williams, it's a shame the stage musical adaptation isn't as memorable as an episode of the TV show. However, Happy Days: A New Musical is an energetic and fun, nostalgia-laden romp through the past. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production features sure-footed direction, sharp choreography, and a large cast who exude charm and charisma as these beloved characters.

The thin plot is basically an expanded TV episode (with a lot of padding) that focuses on the plot to save Arnold's soda shop from a developer who is threatening to demolish it to build something called "a mall." Richie's father and his fellow Leopard Lodge members come up with the idea to hold a dance contest to raise the funds to keep Arnold's open. The contest brings Fonzie's ex-girlfriend, Pinky Tuscadero, back to town, but when the money raised comes up short, the idea for a wrestling match, in which Fonzie will wrestle his rivals the Malachi brothers, is suggested. However, Fonzie has a bum knee from a motorcycle accident that could get worse if he wrestles. Since no one else but Richie knows about this, will Fonzie leave town because he doesn't want to appear weak, or decide to stay and show everyone you can overcome your weaknesses? Will Pinky's return rekindle the still burning flame between her and Fonzie? Will Arnold's be saved? You can pretty much guess the answer to all of these questions.

Marshall's book plays on the characteristics of the familiar TV show characters while also adding in references to events in the TV show (Fonzie jumping the shark, and the characters of Laverne and Shirley, who first appeared on the "Happy Days" show before getting their own spin-off sitcom), along with some self-referential jokes related to the 30-minute sitcom format (at one point Richie says, "usually I'm able to solve a problem in half an hour, but this one's a doozy!"). While there is a bit of social commentary, specifically around how Mrs. Cunningham and other housewives are treated, it's just unfortunate that the plot doesn't add more to the relationships among the characters beyond what anyone who watched the TV show already knows. While Williams' score is period appropriate, it's not that memorable, except for the catchy "Snap" that Fonzie sings, the ballad "What I Dreamed Last Night" that Joanie, her mother and, in a reprise, Pinky, sing, plus the title song from the TV show, which is incorporated into the musical in a new arrangement.

Fortunately, director Rob Watson and the cast bring these beloved characters to life on stage with such verve and vigor that, when combined with the huge dollop of nostalgia the show provides, helps offset many of the show's shortcomings and the predictable plot. Andrew Ruggieri oozes coolness as Fonzie, and Zoe Schneider-Smith is wonderful as Pinky. Ruggieri has fun with his delivery of Fonzie's signature "Aaaay," and his bright singing voice and solid stage presence work perfectly for the laid-back yet firm traits of the character. Schneider-Smith is an excellent singer and dancer and, while her character is also strong, she also manages to show us the vulnerability of the sexy Pinky. As Richie Cunningham, Stephen Hohendorf exhibits all-American wholesomeness, honesty and reliability as the narrator of the show, with a wonderful connection to the entire cast that makes you truly believe they've all been friends for years.

Lionel Ruland and Carolyn McPhee are lovely as Richie and Joanie's parents, Howard and Marion. In supporting roles, Cassie Miller is fun as the eager teenager Joanie, and Nicky Kaider, Ethan James Lynch, and Nino Ruggeri bring a lively sense of comic charm to the roles of Chachi, Ralph, and Potsie. Luther Chakurian does well as Arnold. Bruno Streck Rodrigues and AJ Foggiano appear to be having a blast playing three characters each, including the evil Malachi brothers as well as James Dean and Elvis, who appear to help Fonzie solve his problem. Greta Perlmutter is charming as Richie's girlfriend, Lori Beth. Delaney Spanko and Corinn Szostkiewicz are great as the Pinkettes, and Maggie Barry and Brody Wurr round out the cast in some smaller roles.

Lauran Stanis' choreography is exceptional and well danced by the entire cast, with the use of basketballs in one number and toilet plungers in another that add elements of fun (kudos to prop coordinator Karissa Noonan). The scenic design by Christian Fleming frames the musical as if it is taking place on the soundstage of the TV show and, while it's never referred to in the musical as being a show within a show, the design works well to highlight the musical's TV sitcom roots. The costumes by Lottie Dixon and wigs by Chris Zizzo are superb, period-perfect designs, and Sue Ellen Berger's lighting and Jesse Worley's sound are rich and clear. The music direction by Michael Ursua delivers lovely vocals from the cast.

Happy Days: A New Musical may be predictable and the score just average, but it's still a charming, humorous, and fun family-friendly show and a lovely nostalgic trip to the past.

Happy Days: A New Musical runs through September 18, 2022, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or by calling 623 776-8400.

Book by Garry Marshall
Music and Lyrics by Paul Williams
Direction: Rob Watson
Choreography: Lauran Stanis
Music Direction: Michael Ursua
Scenic Design: Christian Fleming
Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger
Sound Design: Jesse Worley
Costume Design: Lottie Dixon
Wig Coordination: Chris Zizzo
Props Coordination: Karissa Noonan
Stage Manager: Nico Rossetti
Production Stage Manager: Leigh Treat
Associate Artistic Director: Kurtis Overby
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting & Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli: Andrew Ruggieri
Pinky Tuscadero: Zoe Schneider-Smith
Richie Cunningham: Stephen Hohendorf
Howard Cunningham: Lionel Ruland
Marion Cunningham: Carolyn McPhee
Joanie Cunningham: Cassie Miller
Charles "Chachi" Arcola: Nicky Kaider
Ralph Malph: Ethan James Lynch
Warren "Potsie" Webber : Nino Ruggeri
Arnold Delvecchio: Luther Chakurian
Jumpy Malachi / James Dean: Bruno Streck Rodrigues
Myron "Count" Malachi / Elvis: AJ Foggiano
Lori Beth Allen : Greta Perlmutter
Pinkette Lola: Delaney Spanko
Pinkette Tina: Corinn Szostkiewicz
Nerd Girl: Maggie Barry
Bully: Brody Wurr