Some of the cast of "Happy Days: A New Musical" are closer in age to their characters than the actors in the original TV show.
Missoula Community Theatre has some actual high-schoolers playing high-schoolers in the production, a musical adaptation of the TV show that gave America the Fonz and coined the term "jumping the shark."
Director Megan Wiltshire has experience with both arms of MCT, the community theater and the children's theater. She's stage-managed, acted and choreographed community productions. She's directed shows for Fort Peck Summer Theatre, including "Grease," which she said has many similarities with "Happy Days," her directorial debut with MCT.
Her experience with the children's theater is welcome for this show, which has a younger-skewing cast than many community theater shows this season.
Wiltshire said many of these kids couldn't act in MCT's fall production of "Lion King Jr.," since the licensing contract set an age limit of 15. With "Happy Days," many of those who were left out can "start making that transition from children's to community theater," Wiltshire said.
Jack Hubbard, who's in the role of Ralph Malph, is 15. MCT fans may have seen him play the mayor of Munchkinland in "The Wizard of Oz" last spring. Kelson Bauman of Frenchtown High School is playing "Potsie" Webber.
The script follows a plot arc from the fourth season of the TV show. A company has purchased the land beneath the favorite hangout, Arnold's Diner, and wants to bulldoze it to build a mall and parking lot, and the gang rallies to save it. Such efforts include a dance contest, choreographed by MCT's Kirsten Paisley, and a wrestling match with the Malachi brothers.
While the show was set in the 1950s, it was produced in the '70s, meaning it had some signal looks of the era, such as wood paneling on the walls of the diner, Wiltshire said. She and her team decided to be more faithful to the '50s, with checkerboard floors and period-appropriate diner booths. Overall, the set will be minimal, aiming for a rock concert feel. The MCT band, led by Roxann Jackson, will be on stage in costume as Jump and the Sharks.
Beyond the theme song, the show has all-original music by Paul Williams, an Oscar and Grammy Award winner. Fans of musicals will remember his composition "Evergreen," from Barbara Streisand's "A Star is Born." Classic rock fans likely will have heard Three Dog Night's version of his song, "An Old-Fashioned Love Song," or David Bowie's cover of "Fill Your Heart." In a late-period highlight, he worked with Daft Punk on the electronic duo's 2013 album "Random Access Memories," and won a Grammy.
The script was written by the late Garry Marshall, creator of the TV show and director of "Pretty Woman" and "The Princess Diaries." Wiltshire said Marshall didn't shy away from poking fun at his original creation when he set about adapting it for the stage.
"Anyone that grew up with the TV show is going to be in for some wonderful inside jokes and delightful references," she said. The name of the on-stage band, for instance, winks at the notorious episode in which Fonzie jumped over a shark with his motorcycle, providing future generations with a term to indicate that something has gone too far creatively. The show also makes mention of Chuck Cunningham, Richie's brother, who exited the show with no explanation.
"He walked out of a scene and never came back," Wiltshire said. "It's now a TV trope called 'Chuck Cunningham syndrome.' "
Adaptations of TV shows or films can be a boon and a conundrum for theater companies. The name recognition draws audiences, but the cast must find their own voice inside familiar portrayals of the characters.
"From day one of rehearsal I've been very clear with them that we are not trying to recreate the characters from the TV show. We are not trying to be Ron Howard and Henry Winkler. It was really important to me. I didn't want the cast to feel that pressure," she said. The students rehearsed over their Christmas break for the show, crafting their own approach.
That doesn't mean there aren't a few moments of fan service. Chachi's signature line, "wa wa wa," is in there. And of course, Fonzie will indeed say "Ayyy," just like Winkler did.