REVIEW: Foothills Playhouse Hails the Good Ole Days in ‘Happy Days: A New Musical

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Tim Spears, Jr. is the Fonz in “Happy Days” at the Foothills Playhouse.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The Foothills Playhouse in Easley has clearly found its niche… and in television of all places.

Last year’s opener was the hilarious “The Beverly Hillbillies” and now the company’s 35th season kicks off with “Happy Days: A New Musical,” based on the 1970s hit TV show about the Cunningham family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Already nostalgic in its original run, “Happy Days” harkens back to America’s final decade of innocence with sock hops, rock and roll and drive-in movies. But this show resonates with a bonus layer of nostalgia for all of us who grew up with these lovable characters and storylines.

In my childhood, the Fonz (played by Henry Winkler) was THE Man. I believe I even had a Fonz lunchbox. He was cool and bit of a rebel with his motorcycle and leather jacket. And no one messed with Arthur Fonzarelli. His “office” was the men’s’ room at Arnold’s malt shop, and he always had chicks on his arm and the Midas touch with the jukebox.

And the Foothills Playhouse has found the perfect Fonzie for this production in Tim Spears, Jr., who has also directed B-Side shows here. Tough with a steely swagger, Spears exudes confidence and command in a Brooklyn accent made even more enjoyable when he utters the character’s catchphrases “Ayyy”and “Perfectamundo.”  But when push comes to shove, we know the man who literally cannot say the words “I was wrong,” does, in fact, have a heart of gold, and one that belongs to former flame Pinky Tuscadero (the equally cool and suave Hannah Gunter), who is making a pit stop on her motorcycle tour to judge a dance contest.

On a personal note, the real Pinky Tuscadero Roz Kelly did make a pit stop in Spartanburg at Westgate Mall in the late 1970s though I can’t remember if she brought her 1955 pink Cadillac.

Both Spears, Jr. and Gunter are second generation theater artists in the Foothills family: Amanda Gunter is CEO and Tim Spears, Sr. appears briefly as 1970s Elvis, and, with his wife Lisa (a regular FHP performer), helped build the set. And this show and cast is all about family with the Brooks clan also represented by Carlie and Tyler Brooks in supporting roles and the Krefts with Jon as the proprietor of Arnold’s and Haley as Pinkette Tina.

But it’s the Oliver family (five members) that has the most impact in this sweet, innocuous musical  written by show creator Garry Marshall with music and lyrics by legendary and all-but-forgotten songwriter Paul Williams (“Evergreen” and two of The Carpenters’ greatest hits “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” just to name a few).

Nathan Oliver is outstanding as our hero Richie Cunningham (originally played by Ron Howard) the semblance of Apple Pie America. Oliver’s acting chops shine ever-so-brightly here as the straight-laced, clean-cut teenager with a letter sweater who is also a reporter for the school newspaper and announcer for the local radio station. And he has a longtime sweetheart Lori Beth, embodied by Shelby McNulty, who is no so shy about her desire to take their relationship to the engagement level.

The story is set during the fourth season of “Happy Days” when everyone’s favorite malt shop is in danger of closing to make way for a new kind of retail development called a mall. So the gang rallies around Arnold for some fundraisers (a dance contest and a wrestling match) to save their local hangout.

And when I say gang, I mean the whole gang. Richie and his best friends Ralph Malph (Aaron O’Bryant) and Potsie (Bradley Miller), along with Fonzie’s cousin Chachi (Ryan Oliver) perform several doo-wop numbers as the Dial Tones in splendid harmony throughout the show but their finest number may be “Romeo Midnight,” which is sung acapella.

Then there’s the Cunningham family: Mr. C (the steadfast and vibrant actor Jay Ferfater), Mrs. C (Christy Oliver) and daughter Joanie (Molly Emory), who takes baton class and has a crush on Chachi. Some of us may remember that terrible, ill-fated spin-off show “Joanie Loves Chachi.”

The climax of the story occurs in the second act via a hilarious slow-motion wrestling match with Richie and The Fonz versus arch rivals the Malachi brothers, Count (Michael York in a Spanish Don Quixote accent) and Jumpy (the charming Jack Mason).

In addition to the the catchy theme song, which is played in part at least three times, many of the tunes are typical 1950s compositions with several riffs and musical phrases that seemed like they were borrowed from more famous hits or from “Grease.”

But Williams’ finest work in this piece has a more contemporary sound – this musical was first staged in 2007. The most poignant and emotional ballad in the mix is “What I Dreamed Last Night” featuring the three female leads.

Of course, Joanie pines for Chachi and romance, while the magnificent Christy Oliver (who I would bet is in her church choir with that voice) as the 1950s housewife feeling trapped in the kitchen baking pies and wishing for more in life, after her husband disregards her request to work in the family’s hardware store.

And in Gunter’s inspiring reprise, Pinky conversely questions her nomadic lifestyle and entertains the idea of settling down and raising a family.

Also notable, though definitely not in the 1950s genres is Fonzie’s “Aaay’mless,” which evokes 1970s rock opera akin to Williams’ score of the 1974 Brian De Palma film “Phantom of the Paradise.”

The cast also includes Ryan Oliver again as James Dean; Taylor Tessnear as Pinkette Lola; Randall Oliver and Rose Waaser as members of the Leopards Club (the “Happy Days” version of the Lion’s Club); and Carrie McWhorter, Maddy Kouvolo and Roger Davis in supporting roles.

Amanda Gunter music directs and Upstate actor and radio news anchor Anne Robards directs this fine, uplifting production that is appropriate for all ages. Robards choreographs as well, employing some familiar 1950s steps like the hand-jive. Compared to the single-set shows the Foothills Playhouse normally present, he staging is actually quite complex with multiple locations. And though the scene changes are sometimes very long, the excellent live rock band provides musicals interludes to pass the time.

And kudos to the Foothills Playhouse for always going the extra mile (and dollars) for live musicians and not relying on music tracks. This ensemble includes several familiar faces: McKelvie Wilder on keyboard, Tim Lee on guitar, Russ Chapman on bass, Ryan Kouvolo on saxophone, and Robert Johnson on drums.

“Happy Days” fans will not want to miss this musical and all of its references to the original ABC comedy storyline: Laverne and Shirley, Joanie’s bff Jenny Piccolo, “Sit on it, Ralph!”, demolition derbies, and Fonzie’s motorcycle jump over the sharks and his accident. Remember that cliffhanger? They’re all referenced and will invoke all the memories of the era like “Jaws” and the epic Evel Knievel.

“Happy Days: A New Musical” continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Sept. 3 at the Foothills Playhouse, 201 S. Fifth St. in Easley. Call (864) 855-1817 or visit http://www.fhplayhouse.com.

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