In the candy-colored world of “Happy Days,” gasoline is 12 cents a gallon, a slice of pie solves most problems and the hero is easy to spot — just look for the leather jacket and the attitude. Minneapolis Musical Theatre closes out its season with a goofy romp through this nostalgia-laden musical version of the TV show that made “The Fonz” a household name.
“Happy Days — A New Musical” sports all the familiar characters from the 1970s and ’80s sitcom, led by an engaging Eric Heimsoth as Richie Cunningham, as it tackles the problem of how to save iconic soda shop Arnold’s from the wrecking ball.
The solution cooked up by Richie’s dad and his Leopard Lodge buddies — a combined dance contest/wrestling match fundraiser — of course offers the opportunity to feature two central characters as the saviors. Fonzie, played with a mega-quotient of cool by John Zeiler, will wrestle the comically villainous Malachi brothers, while his old flame Pinky Tuscadero (Quinn Shadko) lends her celebrity aura to the dance contest.
Despite the show’s inch-deep premise and a plot as predictable as a rerun, Minneapolis Musical Theatre lends a contagious enthusiasm to the proceedings. Zeiler’s Fonzie isn’t as young as he used to be, sporting a wonky knee from a motorcycle accident, but he imbues the role with laid-back pizazz and pulls off his signature “Aaaay” at all the right moments. Shadko’s Pinky is a bundle of energy and brings a lovely voice to several songs, including the duet “Dancing on the Moon” with Zeiler.
Kory LaQuess Pullam, Matthew Englund and Andrew Newman bring lively comedy and strong singing to the roles of Chachi, Ralph and Potsie, respectively, Richie’s friends and fellow members of the budding musical group Dial Tones.
Lisa Denninger as Richie’s mother and Briana Patnode as kid sister Joanie offer up one of the evening’s loveliest moments in the ballad of self-discovery “What I Dreamed Last Night.” It’s one of the musical’s strongest numbers, so it’s a pleasure to have it reprised in the second act with the addition of Shadko.
Lori Maxwell’s musical direction and an onstage band provide bright accompaniment throughout.
Perhaps most impressive is the extent to which this production, directed by Joe Hendren, overcomes its material. Paul Williams’ two dozen songs are mostly forgettable, while the book by Garry Marshall (who created the TV show) relies heavily on self-referential jokes, campy gags and obvious gestures. Still, this production fully understands that “Happy Days” is about predictability, so as long as the Fonz can give a thumb’s-up at all the appropriate moments, all’s right with this world.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.