It would be a strange twist of fate if a show titled “Happy Days” turned out to be the last show staged by the 60-year-old Chanticleer Theater in Council Bluffs.
The financially struggling theater, which built its present home in 1963, awaits word on several grant applications before deciding whether its doors will stay open for another season. Ticket receipts won't cover essential repairs.
“Happy Days — A New Musical,” opened Friday for a three-weekend run. Garry Marshall, creator of the popular 1974-84 TV sitcom, wrote the script, with score and lyrics by Oscar winner Paul Williams. Todd Brooks both directs and music-directs.
The show doesn't approach the level of the theater's peak artistic years, when Norm and Louise Filbert were at the Chanticleer's helm. It's held back by uneven acting and singing abilities, less-than-inspired staging, and pacing that sometimes drags.
But it's not without redeeming qualities.
Among a cast trying to capture the essence of a familiar television show and its widely known players at a Thursday preview, Stephen Michael Shelton came closest with his portayal of Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli.
Though he's slight of build for the role of tough guy, his voice and body language are just right when he delivers familiar expressions like “Ayyyyyy” or “I knew that.”
And that's a good thing, since the plot centers on the Fonz. Arnold's Malt Shop is in danger of being razed to make room for a mall. Proprietor Al (Steve Ebke) hopes fundraising can buy off the developers.
The main charitable attraction is to be a televised wrestling match between Fonzie and his sworn enemies, the Malachi Brothers (Mark Vondrasek, Jeremy Gillmore). But the Fonz has a bad knee he's been trying to hide.
On top of that, his old flame, Pinky Tuscadero (Katie Owens), is back in town. The spark of that relationship hasn't quite gone out. Fonzie disappears for a while as he figures out the right thing to do.
Matt Hemingway, as boy next door Richie Cunningham; John Jones, as Potsie; Chris Ebke, as Ralph; and Tyler Butler, as Fonz's young cousin Chachi, form an enjoyable singing quartet called the Dial-Tones. They sound good by themselves on “Romeo Midnight,” and as backup to the Fonz on songs like “Ooooooh Bop.”
Solo work from Richie's parents, Howard (Tim Daugherty) and Marion (Denise Putman); from his little sister, Joanie (Morgan Herbener); and from Pinky (shouldn't she be more of a tough girl?) is less consistent, though Pinky and her Pinkettes (Jesse St. Clair, Ariel Ibsen) harmonize nicely.
Big chorus numbers feel long, since dancing and choreography are not the show's strengths. First- and second-act cappers, in particular, could be trimmed to cut the show's 2 hour and 20 minute length.
“Happy Days” will be most fun for friends and relatives of cast members and crew. In that way, it represents the essence of community theater, created with love and sweat by volunteers giving their all. That's long been the heart of what the Chanticleer is all about.
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