HAPPY is exactly how the audience felt at the end of the first night of this brand new musical in Bristol, based on the television series of the same name and written by its creator Garry Marshall. The title song appears reassuringly early in the show, crops up as part of another song along the way, and comes back to bring the house down at the end. Every other piece of music in the show is new and original, written by established composer Paul Williams, although it feels contemporary with the story, with arrangements and harmonies reminiscent of the close harmonies of the early Four Seasons and the girl groups of Phil Spector, and helped with detailed, lyrical solos on saxophone, trumpet and even trombone.
The story is very much like an episode of the TV show, simple, easy to follow, and very predictable – exactly what made the show must-see family viewing in the 1970s and 80s. Worries about other people playing characters I remembered so well from my teenage years quickly vanished as Ben Freeman made The Fonz his own, with his “squeeze” Pinky Tuscadero played by ex-Sugababe Heidi Range, with a beautifully lyrical voice and great moves. The Cunninghams, voices of adult reason, were wonderfully portrayed by James Paterson, who even looked just like his TV character, and Cheryl Baker; yes, the Cheryl Baker, and of course I knew she could sing, but I now know she can dance and act too.
The teenage boys and girls were slick and efficient, convincing as individual characters in their own right, but especially strong as a song and dance ensemble, effortlessly switching from close-harmony doo-wop to individual singing, through complicated Tango and March rhythms to basketball bouncing and tap routines, as well as “unfolding” the intricate and cleverly-designed set, revealing the six or seven locations of the story, all seamlessly, and with perfect timing. Some of the jiving was astoundingly physical, with dancers being thrown around each other at great speed.
My only bit of advice is to producer Amy Anzel, who featured on the Channel Four series about musicals last year. She popped on to the stage before the show to remind us of this, and to ask for honest applause, laughter, feedback, etc., which felt a little like a worried Head Teacher before a school play. Please leave us to make up our own minds, and do not distract us from your wonderful show – it will convince us all on its own, and if you do feel the need to appeal to us for positive feedback, let The Fonz or Mrs Cunningham do it at the end!
This feel-good musical manages to capture the innocence of teenage American life in 1959 and keep us interested from start to finish, and the enthusiasm and energy of the ensemble cast is infectious. It is at Bristol until the end of the week and on tour around the country until at least July, and I heartily recommend it as an antidote to all things modern and negative, and to leave you feeling exceedingly happy.
Monday 3 March 2014
Photo: Paul Coltas