Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
To give it the fairest shake possible, here is a list of the positive things in Happy Days:
- The costumes look good
- Ben Freeman sounds like The Fonz when he speaks
- There’s a funny Bucks Fizz-based joke
- There is one moment in one song where the whole cast sings together and it sounds great
- The show does a collection for charity at the end
- There’s a crease on the blue-sky backdrop that looks like a UFO leaving a cloud, which is quite interesting
- The set never actually falls down, despite looking like it might
And that’s it. Despite desperately wanting it to be the cheesy, happy, campy, bright, fun show it could be, Happy Days is almost entirely charmless.
It’s quite amazing how poor it is.
From the opening song , it’s clear that this is not a show that has had any care taken over it.
As the performance wears on, the applause from the audience gets quieter and quieter and even with the cheap “let’s have a mini-concert at the end” trick employed, the lingering feeling is one of disappointment.
Happy Days lurches between increasingly sour notes, and whenever you think it can’t get worse, here comes another song with no discernible melody, or an off-colour joke, or an absolutely terrible toe-curling character (particularly Jumpy Malachi – good lord) played in a manner that even Disney would reject for being too cartoonish.
It’s really smutty too. That’s not generally a bad thing – outrageously rude jokes are one of the reasons why The Book of Mormon is so superb – but here the gags are painfully inappropriate and out-of-place.
There’s even a joke about James Dean dying in a car crash. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Someone thought it was edgy, I suppose.
The two “stars” of the show are Ben Freeman as The Fonz and ex-Sugababe Heidi Range as Pinky Tuscadero. As mentioned abovem Freeman sounds an awful lot like The Fonz when delivering his lines. That’s a good thing. His singing voice, however, is nasal, atonal and unpleasant to listen to. That’s not a good thing.
The exact opposite is true of Range. While she garbles her lines in some weird approximation of an American accent, her singing is the best of the lot. If only the producers could find some way to combine them – they’d have at least one well-rounded lead.
It’s important for a musical to have good music, but the only song here with a decent tune is the TV show’s theme with none of the others providing any kind of hook. It’s not that they’re bad, they just… exist. The choreography is just as unremarkable, looking at times like the kind of thing girls made up to do along to Madonna songs at youth club.
What’s most dispiriting is that there’s a good show somewhere in there. Happy Days is still well-known and well-loved, the existing plot (someone wants to knock down Arnold’s diner and the gang must raise money to save it) is perfectly usable, and the time period lends itself to a clear musical direction. A wry, knowing, tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole production would have been perfect, rather than the outdated mess provided.
It’s a rare thing to go to the theatre and leave feeling sorry for the cast, but Happy Days manages it. It’s baffling that anyone considered this good enough to show to the public.