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Hamptons Life

May 25, 2010 3:48 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

"Happy Days" offers a high-spirited launch to Gateway Playhouse season

May 25, 2010 3:48 PM

Ah, the universality of innocence, rock songs that contained melody in their hearts and mischievousness rather than violence, the days of jukeboxes and juke joints. All of this and more decorates and pervades the stage of the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, opening its 62nd season and kicking off the regional professional theater schedule with brio in “Happy Days,” the new musical version of the ancient television sitcom.

Just about as substantial as its source, and less than blessed by a Garry Marshall and Paul Williams book that ladles on the satire with a payloader, “Happy Days” is best when it’s dancing, which it does most of the time, and it’s particularly good in the wildly boisterous title tune, and the second act opener, “Run.” And this best comes courtesy of the high spirited, dynamite dancers that director/choreographer Keith Andrews puts through a series of supercharged, high flying paces at the drop of a 
song cue (and sometimes without).

Despite its undistinguished but honestly 1950s-redolent score by Paul Williams, ”Happy Days” is an unfailingly happy show, beautifully cast and danced and sung. And it’s impossible, except for some momentary dips in its second act, not to love the show and every shining face that gleams and every stupid shindig that’s socked over the footlights at what, on opening night, was a highly receptive audience, a lively preview of audiences to come that will undoubtedly fill the Gateway for the show’s run. Who can resist the glow of a fond memory in this beastly, battered age?

The uncredited set is a re-creation of the sitcom, down to Fonzie’s lair, the Cunningham kitchen (with oversize jars of mayonnaise and lots of Wonder Bread), Arnold’s carhop/juke joint, Fonzie’s car repair shop, complete with part of an obviously big finned Cadillac, Fonzie’s motorcycle, and a combination wrestling ring and public park. Most of it is kept wide open for the wide-ranging dancers, who re-create everything from airborne sock hops to a tap dancing sendup of ’50s television commercials.

The singing is right out of the decade, and is particularly lassoed by a sweet singing, tightly harmonizing backup quartet, merrily monickered the Dial Tones. The four doo wop singers are Fonzie’s buddies, Richie Cunningham (Andrew Pandaleon), Ralph Malph (Chris Cook), Potsie (Robert McCaffrey) and Chachi Arcola (Jack Holahan). Their fusing with Fonzie in “Maybe It’s Time to Move On,” which closes the first act, is a sure memory grabber. And, oh yes: Along the way, there are the requisite Elvis Presley and James Dean impressions.

As usual, the Gateway’s casting/artistic director Robin Joy Allan has assembled a cast that seems to be born into the roles. Vince Trani, as Arnold, the juke joint owner, has an impressive voice and, to match, an equally impressive pot belly; Trudi Posey and Scotty Watson are the ’50s standard addled parents to a grimace and an outburst; Dara Hartman is a bubbly, funny Joanie Cunningham, as Andrew Pandaleon is a funny Richie, the combination narrator and Fonzie buddy, and Megan Wean is charming as his lean, blonde and dancing date.

John Rochette as the villainous Count Malachi and Kevin Gutches as his dopey brother Jumpy are suitably sinister, and made moreso by the intense red lighting by Marcia Madeira, whose lighting design, aided by Marianne Dominy’s period wacky costumes, bathes the show in nostalgic primary colors.

Noel Molinelli is a feast for tired eyes as Pinky, the traffic stopping, redheaded super sexpot and love interest of Fonzie. She wears her abbreviated costumes with brash beguilingness and sings up a storm, first solo in “The Pink’s in Town,” then mellow mood with Fonzie in “Dancing on the Moon.’

And Eli Zoller, for all his black leather, is an appealing Fonzie, a true hometown hero who vanquishes the villains and gets his girl at the finale.

“Happy Days” will get no prizes for its depth. But it’s a delightful piece of mindless fluff to accompany the arrival of the softness of spring.

Shows are every night but Monday and in several matinees a week through June 12; the box office number is 286-1133.

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