It's always admirable to see theater productions where the creative team truly believes in their material, and this was present in two recent productions--though both were channeling that passion in directions that could not be more opposite.
The first show, seen at the Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake, is called Happy Days, with the subtitle "Aaay;! It's a musical." Yes, it's that old sitcom from the 1970's; only now it's got showtunes--and you have to pay to watch it.
It's easy to dismiss this as yet another cynical attempt to squeeze money out of a tired franchise, but to be fair Happy Days is more like a get rich slow scheme. Rather than go straight to Broadway with this recognizable property, show creator Garry Marshall hasn't simply thrown money at Happy Days in the hope that the name alone will sell $100 tickets; instead he's nurtured the material himself, hoping to start small and eventually wind up with something that--like the original TV show--runs forever.
Marshall, who could bankroll multiple Broadway shows (and some small countries) with his Happy Days and Pretty Woman residuals--was seen in the aisles of the Falcon Theater during performances late in the run, still diligently tweaking things in the hope of making his crowd pleaser that much more audience friendly.
So it's sad to report that Happy Days, despite the care that went into its making, was such a tepid theatrical experience. The show suffered from many things, but the main one was simply: the Fonz factor. Here at the Falcon, Arthur Fonzarelli was performed by former "New; Kids on the Block" pop singer Joey McIntyre--a likable enough performer, but an actor who has about as much masculine charisma a poodle skirt.
But it's not just Fonzie's lack of magnetism that's the problem; it's also Marshall's re-conception of the character--and the piece as a whole. Instead of just serving up meat and potatoes nostalgia, Marshall adds a modern sensibility to the proceedings. Fonzie gets introspective, and instead of caring about looking cool, he starts worrying about the future.
Happy Days was a hit during the ---70's because it offered up an image of American life that was old-fashioned and simple. Marshall seems to have forgotten that. Just because his show has been transplanted to the stage doesn't mean it has to be more sophisticated. It just has to be fun. If people want real introspection, they'll go to a production of Beckett's Happy Days instead.
On the other side of town--and at the other side of the theatrical spectrum--is the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's production of a recent German play titled Mr. Kolpert. Just as Garry Marshall's troupe gives their all in the service of theatrical comfort food, director Scott Cummins and his actors valiantly strive to create drama that's profound and philosophical.
Mr. Kolpert, which runs through Sunday, is the work of a young playwright named David Gieselmann. Since premiering in London six years ago, Mr. Kolpert been produced all over Europe. It's not hard to see why. Mr. Kolpert requires a small cast and minimal stagecraft. Also it's a work that seems tailor-made to shock a subscription audience. Mr. Kolpert begins with the sort of casual antics of a Neil Simon play or network sitcom but slowly morphs into something more sinister and challenging.
However, after one viewing, Mr. Kolpert feels a bit like boulevard nihilism--though the British translation is not served well at the Odyssey by American instead of Anglo actors. Yet if Gieselmann's words are not served well, the action in Mr. Kolpert does stand out, thanks to carefully choreographed stunts, and a few gutsy, physical performances by members of the cast.
Mr. Kolpert navigates a course between Pinter-esque ambiguity and Sarah Kane-like Grand Guignol, so it does titillate, but without any conviction as to why. Gieselmann seems inspired by the great German tradition of theater as philosophy; but in execution, Mr. Kolpert resembles lighter fare like Yasmina Reza's Art, a play where intellectual ideas are theatrical truffle shavings, sprinkled over the work in the attempt to give a highbrow patina to otherwise conventional fare.
Mr. Kolpert, like Happy Days, has had a successful run; so it would seem like LA is a good home for Germanic, existential dramas that feel like sitcoms, and for sitcom-inspired musical-comedies that really want to philosophize.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.