Review: 'Happy Days' celebrates past but has bouncy appeal today

With "Grease" and "Hairspray" already revisiting the 1950s and 1960s, Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia might have bored the crowd with another familiar show by putting on "Happy Days" — but the production results in a lively, entertaining evening.

More than just another look through rose-colored glasses at the popular sitcom, this musical set in 1959 Milwaukee celebrates the heroes from the 1970s TV show and still has its own cheerful bouncy appeal to audiences today.

The "Happy Days" television show, which aired for a decade starting in 1974, focused on the Cunningham family — teenager Richie, his parents, hardware store owner Howard and homemaker Marion, and Richie's younger sister, Joanie.

In the current musical, the Cunningham family is intent on saving favorite teen hangout, Arnold's Drive-In, from demolition to make way for a mall. The plan is to stage a fundraising wrestling match between hero Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli and the Malachi Brothers — Myron and Jumpy, who are primed for a dirty fight. The musical's focus is on the Fonz and his former girlfriend, Pinky Tuscadero, who is returning to town to host a dance competition and might rekindle their romance.

The production at the Columbia theater is smartly directed by Toby Orenstein and co-directed and staged by Shawn Kettering, who together move this sparkling, energetic ensemble production at a lively pace, while showcasing several major talents.

Skilled musical director and conductor Ross Scott Rawlings and his six musicians reveal whatever excellence they discover in this score that may be at its best in the original "Happy Days" theme song. Generally, the score does not live up to composer Paul Williams' reputation as creator of such hits as "Rainy Days and Mondays," "You and Me Against the World," "We've Only Just Begun" and "Evergreen."

Orenstein's production is enhanced by the costume designing talents of Janine Sunday, who re-creates the '50s with panache.

Strong ensemble work is displayed in the opening chorus of "Welcome to Wisconsin," as well as in the number "Ordinary Hero" and the musical's finale. Smooth harmonies also come from the Dial Tones quartet made up of Richie and his friends, Ralph, Potsie and Chachi. Not to be outdone, Pinky has her own Pinkettes singing and dancing group. Well-executed, energy-filled dance numbers brighten several scenes.

Orenstein's "Happy Days" is blessed with two extraordinary performers in leading roles. The Fonz is so embodied by Greg Twomey that he creates a more nuanced version than Henry Winkler's original. Last seen in Orenstein's 2010 production of "Rent," singer-actor Twomey gives another bravura performance and is impressive with his powerful baritone as he delivers the upbeat "Snap" number and a show-stopping reflective "Maybe It's Time to Move On" — the musical highlight of the evening.

A fine match for Twomey's Fonz is Jessica Lauren Ball as his high school sweetheart. She creates a sizzling Pinky in her numbers "The Pink's in Town" and "Message in the Music," and she revs up her sensuality in "Legend in Leather." Ball is most convincing in her "Dancing on the Moon" duet as she finally gets together with Twomey's Fonz.

As Marion Cunningham, Esther Covington delivers a portrayal laced with sardonic reflections, like when husband asks at breakfast what she'll do that day, and she replies, "I'll plan dinner." Covington's "What I Dreamed Last Night" duet with Amy Sonntag's Joanie is a touching reflection of mother-daughter bonds.

Other standouts include Jamie Boyle as Richie, David James as Arnold, Chris Rudy as Chachi and Dan Sonntag as Potsie. Sonntag is becoming a strong regular on Orenstein's talent roster.

If you go

"Happy Days" at Toby's Dinner Theatre, Columbia

Dates: Through June 12

Tickets and information: or 410-995-1969

Cost: $47-52 adults, $33.50 children

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