Richie, Joanie, Potsie, Chachi, the Fonz. For television viewers of a certain age, the characters of "Happy Days -- A New Musical" will need no introduction. Like old friends, they are instantly recognizable and comforting -- our ageless tour guides through a theatrical time warp.
Actually, make that a double time warp. The original ABC sitcom ran from 1974 to 1984, but the era it evoked was white-bread Milwaukee circa 1959, a time of drive-ins and sock hops, a period when adolescent rebellion meant wearing a leather jacket -- with the collar up -- while cruising around on a motorcycle.
A modestly scaled and innocuously pleasing stroll down memory lane, "Happy Days -- A New Musical," currently playing at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as part of a national tour, offers the stage equivalent of a yearbook flashback, revisiting the sitcom characters exactly as we remembered them, preserved like specimens in a solution of nostalgia and golden-era sentimentality.
Never the most groundbreaking of TV shows, "Happy Days" boasted endearingly archetypal characters with reasonably clever catchphrases. The musical, which features a book by Garry Marshall (the sitcom's creator), uses the same template and succeeds at its admittedly flyweight task.
Now in his senior year at Jefferson High, clean-cut Richie Cunningham (Steven Booth) learns that his favorite restaurant hangout, Arnold's, faces foreclosure. With pluck and gumption, he helps to organize a town-wide fundraising event with his friends the Fonz (Joey Sorge) and Chachi (Chris Fiore).
Along for the ride are the Fonz's old flame Pinky (Felicia Finley) -- a prototypal bad girl with cotton-candy hair and permanently exposed midriff -- as well as a pair of local villains (Matt Merchant and Matt Walker) who challenge the Fonz to a wrestling match.
Formulaic to the core, the plot seldom rises above one-trait-per-character simplicity. The songs by Oscar-winner Paul Williams channel a mildly infectious doo-wop beat while dutifully recycling the sitcom's theme song at key intervals. The staging by Gordon Greenberg and choreography by Michele Lynch are as generic as Wonder Bread.
First produced in 2006 at Marshall's Falcon Theatre in Burbank, "Happy Days" has the makings of a war horse for small-town regional theaters. The humor is family-friendly and the transgressive pleasures -- few that there are -- possess a winking innocence.
Cynthia Ferrer brings barely contained hysteria to the part of the repressed Mrs. Cunningham, while Sorge's Fonzie makes an art form out of G-rated double entendres. "Girls are like cars," he tells Richie. "You have to warm 'em up before you shift gears."
"Happy Days," pace Samuel Beckett, is about as substantive as an ice-cream float, offering two hours of empty-calorie diversion. But the show also knows not to lay it on too thick. Once the curtain comes down, the aftertaste is sweet but not sickeningly so.
Its artistic value rests close to nil, but the show provides an adequate mood booster for our less-than-happy economic days.
Ng is a freelance writer.