Jumping the Shark

Most people know that the phrase “Jumping the Shark” refers the point in a television program’s history where the plot spins off into absurd storylines or unlikely characterizations, and usually signals the start of a show’s decline. Some of those folks may even know that the term arose due to an episode of “Happy Days”, although the episode’s author disputes that’s where it happened. I mention this all because last night we went out to Thousand Oaks to see Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. Although Cabrillo made a valient attempt to do the best they could with the material they had, they were hampered by book problems, music problems, and technical problems (but, I should say, no acting problems, for the cast itself was pretty good).

Happy Days: The Musical” tells an episode in the list of one of America’s favorite TV families: The Cunninghams of the sitcom “Happy Days”. The plot, in TV Guide style:

The local hangout, Arnold’s, is threatened with closure and demolition unless the gang helps Arnold raise enough money to buy the land from the developer.

Oh, you want more details. Arnold’s is threatened with destruction when the land under Arnold’s is sold to a developer to build a mall. So that entire gang from the TV show (more on that later) comes up with ways to make money to save the drive-in: a dance contest, a pie contest, and a televised wrestling match. Pinky Tuscadero comes into town to judge the dance contest, dredging up the past relationship with Fonzie, and the Howard Cunningham comes up with idea for a TV wrestling match where the Malachi Brothers challenge Fonzie. But Fonzie runs away, thus providing us with an act break, as well as the opportunity for Fonzie to admit you have to face your weaknesses. Arnold’s is saved, although (at least in how Cabrillo presented it) not by raising the money, but by being declared a historic landmark by the Leopard Lodge members, who just happened to be the city council.

Yeah, it does read better as the TV Guide plot summary.

Let’s start with the show’s problems, and then go on to what worked. Foremost among this show’s problem is the book by Garry Marshall, author of the original series. Books have done in many a show, so this isn’t a surprise. What’s wrong with the book? Too much and too little. Let’s take these in reverse order.

The “too little” was that there was too little in terms of context. The musical takes place in 1959, perhaps the fourth year of the TV series, although some of the characters make that wrong. It opens with the assumption that you know all the characters (well, to be truthful, it doesn’t, but the opening song doesn’t provide enough characterization or information, despite all its exposition, to provide an adquate introduction). And by “all the characters”, I mean all, for the author brings in almost every named character over the life of the series including Roger Phillips: the entire Cunningham family, Potsie, Ralph, Arnold (who wasn’t Japanese), Fonzie, Pinky, Chachi, the Malachi brothers, Lori-Beth, among others. With all these characters, none receives adequate characterization in the storyline to become more than stereotypes of their TV characters. This means that the main characters are stereotypes of 30-year old TV characters who many people do not remember well, and this means you never grow to care about these characters. Compare this with a well-crafted musical such as “South Pacific”, where the opening numbers truely educate you about the loves, characteristics, and wants of the much smaller set of major characters.

This brings us to the “too much”. There is just too much in the story. There are too many different ways to save Arnolds: a dance contest, a pie contest, the wrestling match. There are too many characters. There’s also too much of a requirement that the audience remember the minutae of the TV series, such as Fonzie injuring his knee in a demolition derby, or that he jumped a shark (yes, it is referenced, as is Chuck, the missing brother). There are also numerous additional plots added: will Joanie fall for Chachi, will Howard get a plaque, will Marion ever be fulfilled as a 1950s housewife, will Pinky and Fonzie get together, and will the Dial-Tones ever perform? This is just too, too much. Further, the main plot line is simply discarded at the end: after raising money, it is discovered that it isn’t enough. But (he said, pulling the rabbit out of the hat), Ritchie discovered that a historic property designation will save the drive-in (yeah, like in 1959 a drive-in was historic)… and that can be done by a majority of the council… and all the Leopards are all the council and constitute a majority. And so they vote, and the plot becomes unnecessary and the story, so to speak, jumps the shark.

The best musicals have simple plots, usually whether the boy will get the girl, and have all the extraneous crap tossed out on the road. That never happened here: this show only got to off-Broadway, and was hampered by the book author being the concept creator. The book needs characters pruned and characterizations improved, and to treat the audience like the TV series never happened. It needs to pick a single plot that exhibits character growth—and that character shouldn’t be Fonzie, whose growth wasn’t the point of the series. If this show had taken the same basic plot description but simplified, and instead of Fonzie saving the day had Ritchie finding his inner strength and saving the day, it would have been much better. That’s the character that needs to grow, for the sitcom “Happy Days” was ultimately the story of Ritchie Cunningham becoming an adult.

But the book isn’t all the problem with this show. Let’s turn to the music next. Here the problems were a mix of the musical team and Cabrillo. The show features music and lyrics by Paul Williams, whose music, historically, has been relatively bland. The most energetic song was the original show’s theme song by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. The music for this show needs a much stronger 1950s flavor; perhaps Gimbel and Fox should have been consulted. Cabrillo’s execution also hurt the music, for they used a very small orchestra (under the musical direction of Cabrillo regular Lloyd Cooper, with Darryl Tanikawa as Orchestra Contractor): two electric guitars, a keyboard, perhaps two horns, and drums. This left the music with a small feel for a big show, and subtracted significantly from the energy. Although I understand the economics of the decision, two more horns and perhaps an additional keyboard would have been much better and the cost could be covered by cutting some extraneous plot.

There were also technical problems. Although the choreography by John Charron was mostly adequate, some things were inexplicable, such as why the dance contest used swing moves from the 1940s. Microphones kept cutting in and out, which distracted from the otherwise adequate sound design by Cabrillo regular Jonathan Burke. Lastly, the lighting was weird. Here I’m not referring to Cabrillo’s known problem of overuse of the follow-spot. Rather, there were on-stage moving lights that seemed to serve no purpose other than to blink on and off. Christina L. Munch, the Lighting Designer, needs to rethink that aspect of the lighting design.

So with all of the above, you might think this was a bad show. It wasn’t. As I said before, Cabrillo did a reasonable job with the material they were given, and what saved the show was the excellent cast. So let’s turn to talking about the good stuff.

In the lead positions were Derek Keelingæ as Fonzie (who we last saw in “Life Could Be A Dream”) and Misty Cottonæ as Pinky (who we last saw in “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “The Last 5 Years”). Both were wonderful in their roles and brought the weak written characterizations of their characters to life. Misty in particular was excellent: when she was on-stage, she grabbed your attention and just shone. Also strong was Tracy Loreæ as Marion Cunningham. In her main numbers, “What I Dreamed Last Night” and its reprise, you could see through her characterization that there was much more than Marion Cunningham than a 1950s housewife. I was also impressed with Derek Klena as Ritchie Cunningham. Although his hair was the wrong color (hint: there’s a reason his nickname was “Red”), he combined youthful enthusiasm with a good singing voice, albeit one that was overshadowed at times. I was also very impressed with Tessa Grady, a senior at Santa Susana High School, as Joanie Cunningham. Again: youthful enthusiasm, great singing and dancing, combined with strong acting and characterization made her a standout, and I look forward to seeing her as she grows in a professional career.

The remainder of the cast was good, but without particular standouts. In the first tier were John Richard Petersen (Howard Cunningham), Benjamin Goldsmith (Potsie Weber), Dane Biren (Ralph Malph), and Estevan Valdes (Charles “Chachi” Arcola). These folks were strong, but needed a stronger resemblance (either physically, or even more so, in characterization) to the original characters. The remainder of the cast consisted of: Nicholas Leinbach (Myron “Count” Malachi), Will Harris (Jumpy Malachi), Jay Weber (Arnold), Holly Long (Lori Beth), Valentine Bezar (Marsha Simms), Simone Denise Burch (Cindy Moon), Callie Carson (Pinkette Tina), Ryyn Chua (Johnny Oliver), Jessie Lee Coffman (Joyce James), Aubrey Elson (Paula Petralunga), Sarah Girard (Pinkette Lola), Keenon Hooks (Gil Crawford), Natasha Hugger (Susan Prescott), Tyler Muhlenkamp (Freddy Bascomb), Joe Roth (Roger Phillips), and Zane Gerson (Elvis).
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Although I picked apart the writing in the large earlier, there were a number of good lines in the show, often as throwaway laughs (such as the reference about college dorm rooms in the 1960s being safe places, or the question about whatever happened to the older brother Chuck). The show was directed by Susan Morgenstern, who gave a valient try to overcome the material, and did a pretty good job of making the sitcom characters somewhat three-dimensional. The choreography by John Charron (assisted by Kai Chubb), except as noted above, was reasonably good, enhanced by a strong dancing ensemble. The Production Stage Manager was William Coiner assisted by Anne Mureau; this is a new stage management team.

Turning to the technical: I’ve already discussed the problems with the sound and the lighting. Other technical aspects were good: I liked the set design (scenery designed by Walt Spanger, and provided by McCoy Rigby Entertainment) and the costumes (designed by David C. Wallard, and again provided by McCoy Rigby Entertainment). Hair and makeup was designed by Mark Travis Hoyer. Gina Farina was Technical Director.

Tonight is the last performance of Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo. Tickets are available through the online box office or by calling the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza box office at (805) 449-2787, and two-for-one Mezzanine tickets are available (just mention the code “Sunday”). The remainder of the Cabrillo season is: “The Marvelous Wondettes (February 4 – 13, 2011); “The Producers” (April 8 – 17, 2011); “The Sound of Music (July 22 – 31, 2011), and “The Cabrillo 2010 Holiday Spectacular starring Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy” (December 21-24, 2010). Cabrillo has dedicated all their performances of “Happy Days” to the memory of Tom Bosley.

Dining Notes: One success of last night was that we found a new restaurant: Los Agaves Mexican Grill on T.O. Blvd just E of the theatre. I had an excellent grilled salmon with steamed veggies and rice, and the rest of the party enjoyed the various stuff they ordered. I think we’ll try this one again.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next week brings “Varney the Vampire” at Van Nuys High School on November 4, 5, and 6 (contact us for tickets; Erin has a leading role). The following week will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 21), and Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, and Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 18 or 19). It should also take Erin to West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre, which is pending ticketing (sigh).

Looking briefly into 2011: January will bring Tom Paxton at McCabes on my birthday, January 21 (pending ticketing), and perhaps the first REP show of the season. February will bring The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19 or 20 (pending ticketing), and Moonlight and Magnolias at the Colony Theatre on February 26. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.


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