The 1950s may belong to history but every now and then a stage musical arrives to demonstrate that the decade was not quite as grey as it is sometimes painted.
Grease and Buddy are cases in point and now we have Happy Days, a musical version of the hit TV show which delighted Nottingham Theatre Royal audiences.
It started its tour in January on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the classic sitcom, which featured the unforgettable King of Cool, Arthur ‘The Fonz’ Fonzarelli. Set in 1959 Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it includes 21 original songs by Paul Williams.
The simple plot doesn’t give you a headache. The Fonz lodges with a wholesome, all-American family, the Cunninghams. Along with the rest of the Jefferson High School gang, they battle to save their favourite diner Arnold’s from the developers.
Former Emmerdale star Ben Freeman faces a massive challenge in the role of The Fonz, particularly when the name of the original, Henry Winkler, is mentioned in the programme as creative consultant. But Freeman is in his leather-clad element, finger-snapping, thumbs-up, hip – the sheer epitome of laidback cool dude and charisma.
Heidi Range shows there’s more to showbiz life than the Sugababes as Fonzie’s squeeze Pinky Tuscadero. Two contrasting numbers, an up-beat Message in the Music and a poignant Legend in Leather provide evidence of a talent that can sometimes get lost in girl groups.
Then there’s Cheryl Baker as Mrs Cunningham, stuck in the kitchen but soon bringing in echoes of Bucks Fizz days. Henry Davis and Sam Robinson also excel as the local nasties and ace wrestlers, the Malachi Brothers.
Richie Cunningham (Scott Waugh) and his friends turn in a nice performance as the Dial-Tones, a typical 1950s’ close harmony group.
The show gets off to a somewhat sluggish start and it doesn’t help that, apart from Happy Days, the songs are unfamiliar. That said, they all fit the plot and there are some standout moments – What I Dreamed Last Night (Cheryl Baker and Emma Harrold), Guys Like Us (Fonz, Elvis and James Dean) and Dancing on the Moon (Fonz and Pinkie).
The second half is in complete contrast – upbeat, lively and with the audience on its feet for a rousing finale, clapping along to the title song. Great new songs, slick dance routines, plenty of exuberance and Mr Cool himself.
Happy Days, indeed.