Review: Happy Days - A New Musical at the Bristol Hippodrome

First published in Theatre Gazette Series: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Yate, Chipping Sodbury, Winterbourne, Frampton Cotterell, Rangeworthy, Wickwar, Hawkesbury, Iron Acton, Coalpit Heath and Old Sodbury

ON paper, Happy Days should work as a musical.

Great costumes, cute American family, a fun fifties ethos and a talented cast of singers and actors headed up by Cheryl Baker, Ben Freeman and Heidi Range. But somehow this new show, which only launched in February, just doesn’t quite stack up and unfortunately, it’s mainly down to a poor script.

Set in 1959, the Cunningham family, made up of housewife Marion (Cheryl Baker), store owner Howard (James Paterson), aspiring reporter Richie (Scott Waugh) and keen-to-grow-up Joanie (Emma Harrold), are much loved in Milwaukee. And when the epicentre of the town, Arnold’s diner, is under threat from development, the Cunninghams, along with uber cool Fonzy (Ben Freeman) are on hand to help.

James Paterson looks and sounds just like Tom Bosley who played Howard Cunningham in the hugely popular television series of the 1970s and early 1980s and coupled with Cheryl Baker’s wealth of experience in entertainment, the pair are the perfect parental figures for the show. Cheryl’s natural enthusiasm is infectious and yes, she even manages to replicate her Eurovision days by ripping off her apron to reveal some sexy shorts underneath.

With a difficult task in hand, Ben Freeman steps up to the challenge of playing The Fonz admirably. He has the swagger, the gelled hair and has developed his own delivery of iconic catchphrase ‘Eeehh!’ made unforgettable by Henry Winkler. And the Emmerdale star’s voice is clearly one made for musicals.

Ex-Sugababe Heidi Range certainly brings a touch of glamour to proceedings looking every inch the part as Fonzie’s love interest Pinky. Having toured the world with one of the most successful girl bands in history, her voice is, as expected, pitch perfect.

Scott Waugh as Richie, who in the TV series was the cleverest teen in town, gives an air of being just too young mainly because his delivery of every word is so over emphasised it feels a little too child-like.

And then there are the Malachi brothers, Milwaukee’s apparent answer to Spanish pirates, who challenge Fonzie to a wrestling duo during a picnic in aid of Arnold’s. These pantomime characters, although well acted, have little place in the town let alone the show.

The set is impressive, with numerous scene changes made seamless by large doors decorated on both sides, diner booths and a squeaky clean kitchen and the motorbikes bring some rock n roll cool.

Aside from the Happy Days theme tune, the score is entirely original. There may not be any instantly memorable tunes but Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams has penned plenty of fun, upbeat numbers including Message in the Music, Run and the recurring What I Dreamed Last Night as well as several barbershop tunes and Guys Like Us featuring Elvis and James Dean no less.

The problem it is difficult to escape from though is that the show just isn’t funny. There are few laugh-out-loud moments and the one-liners which have been scripted failed to produce even a titter. And that is not to say there isn’t scope for a hoot or two, particularly through comedy character Ralph Malph who, despite being well acted by Andrew Waldron, just doesn’t have the lines to back up his brilliant use of body language and facial expressions.

Even with producer Amy Anzel’s appearance on stage at the beginning of the show personally appealing to the audience to laugh and cheer along, Happy Days: A New Musical sadly didn’t have us all in stitches and needs an injection of humour if it is going to live up to its namesake.

Happy Days is on at the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday, March 8.

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