Wellington Operatic Society’s annual shows at The Wellesley have earned a deserved reputation for delivering high-quality musical entertainment to local audiences – and this year’s production of ‘Happy Days’ maintains – and in many ways exceeds – that standard. The show opens on Wednesday 9th May for a run of five performances and only a few tickets are still available. Those who have them can look forward to a very special musical treat.
Some members of the audience may actually have first-hand knowledge of the popular US TV sitcom which ran for ten years from 1974 and from which this musical is a spin-off. But those who don’t will surely engage with the idea of America and Americans as loud, brash and currently lacking credibility – and that’s a useful starting point.
Like great musicals such as ‘Grease’ which this show resembles, characters are drawn in very broad brushstrokes and the plot has all the subtlety of a kid’s comic. It features Arthur Fonzarelli, known as The Fonz or Fonzie, the ‘king of cool’ and his fellow citizens of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1959. His one-time girlfriend, Pinkie Tuscadero, rides into town (accompanied by her Pinkettes) to help rescue Arnold’s Malt Shop – where everyone hangs out – from demolition. There are good guys and bad guys – the Malachi Brothers being pantomime villains – and girls, each of whom has an eye on one of the boys. There are also adults, some of them belonging to a quasi-Masonic lodge called The Leopards.
The disparate narrative strands which take in a dance contest, romance, gang rivalry (or a parody of it) and a wrestling match are, in themselves, clichéd and the dialogue is not exactly Shakespearian despite ‘Macbeth’ being quoted. So the strength of the show as a whole must come from how it recreates the atmosphere and look of 1950‘s USA, from the delivery of the songs and dance routines to the power of the actors to convey their stereotypical roles with energy and cheerful blitheness. In turn, the audience needs to be rocked and rolled and entertained by the zest of performances that convey more than a subtle hint of parody. And they certainly will be!
Director Colin Marshall has incorporated in a superb set design. Two neon arches – one making a gorgeous rainbow of the proscenium – plus a vintage juke box and petrol pump and a sexy motor bike, all provide exactly the right look. Arnold’s Malt Shop is a period piece in itself crafted from red leatherette and chrome. The set is cleverly adaptable too with rotated trucks moving the scene through a number of different locations. Colin’s direction also maintains the impetus of the production by using freeze-framing whilst the lighting team, once again, produce some stunning effects, contrasting primary colours with shade and spotlighting to add tone to each scene.
Costumes too – always one of the company’s strengths – could have come straight off the rails of a 1950’s store. The colours are big and bold and hit the right visual notes from the opening number to the finale. Stiff petticoats under pretty frocks should come back into fashion they look so good here.
Performances from the whole cast are remarkable – and remarkably even. Oli Redstone as The Fonz has acquired a range of stylised gestures and mannerisms that fit perfectly on the King of Cool to add physical accomplishment to his stage confidence and silky voice. His mate Richie, played by Harry Caldicott, presents a striking contrasts – not cool but earnest and honest. His leadership of the delightful and well-defined ‘boy band’ of Chachi, Ralph and Potsie produces some high-quality musical numbers, not least ‘Run’ which opens Act Two. Rob Spurway’s Arnold is delightful, all twitchy goofiness and lovability, the focus of the drive to save his shop.
Keira Lissaman as Pinky Tuscadero sings, moves, dances and acts with the confidence and skill of star. She captures Pinkie’s sassy confidence and a kick-ass manner without losing her femininity and attractiveness. Georgia Channon’s Joannie suggests that Genesis and OpSoc’s production line has delivered another skilled and able performer to the stage. Steph Coleman as Richie’s Mum, Marion, makes much of a delightful role as a woman cast as a contrast to the independent Pinkie. When Pinkie expresses admiration for her as a wife and mother, she replies ‘I’m just a housewife. You’re out there on the road, while I’m here cutting the crusts off tuna fish sandwiches’. Women in the audience will undoubtedly empathise. ‘What I Dreamed last Night’ with Pinkie and Joannie could be a rousing battle cry for today’s women, both young and older.
The two pantomime villains – Myron and Jumpy Malachi played by Henry Wright-Fox and Kirk Shepherd in habitual nasty mode (stage version only) – are intentionally ludicrous, suggesting menace but avoiding frightening the front row in the audience. The wrestling scene, performed in slow-motion, is a triumph of the ridiculous.
Whilst the lead characters share the downstage spotlight, the whole cast provides the detail, colour, sound and movement to make ‘Happy Days’ such a joy to watch. Choreographer Cheryl Keith-Hill has created a series of outstanding routines – demanding, varied and full of detail. If the audience is brought to its feet by each one, it should rightfully stand on the seats for ‘Aaay’mless’. Adding effortlessness on roller skates to singing, dancing (including tap whilst balancing pies) and acting would seem an ask too far for these performers but they manage it with ease. One particular feature of this show is the very evident enjoyment conveyed by the whole cast as well as the broad range of performance skills on display.
Musical Director Richard Lennox brings pronounced energy and dynamism to the production. With more than 20 big musical numbers to manage and bits of complex dialogue punctuation to insert, his role in crafting this big, bold production cannot be understated.
As a musical ‘Happy Days’ may not be as familiar to audiences as many in OpSoc’s backlist but this production shows its qualities as big, bold and immensely likeable. It is simply superb. Well done to the whole team. Wellington is more fortunate than is, perhaps, recognised to have musical theatre of this standard available in the town.
Performances are on Wednesday 9th, Thursday 10th, Friday 11th and Saturday 12th May at 7.30pm with a matinee on Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets from Odettes Tea Room in Wellington High Street or online.