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It's hard to get too happy about 'Happy Days'

Eli Zoller as Fonzie and Andrew Pandaleon as

Eli Zoller as Fonzie and Andrew Pandaleon as Richie in "Happy Days," the musical making its New York debut at Gateway Playhouse in Bellport. Credit: Handout

'Happy days are here again." No, wait. That was an FDR campaign jingle during the Great Depression.

"Sunday, Monday, Happy Days . . . "

Bouncy as it is, the theme to "Happy Days," the TV series, was never deep. So maybe we shouldn't expect "Happy Days the Musical" to do more than tread water. Yet, by the title alone, we're invited to be optimistic.

The musical spin on the small-tube hit set in 1959 has the potential to lift us out of the Great Recession doldrums. But mostly, it's a jobless recovery.

"Happy Days," making its New York debut at Gateway Playhouse, recalls the "I like Ike" days of smiley-faced, spoon-fed entertainment. The '60s generation solved that problem (though not without collateral damage). Let it all hang out. Unlike the TV series, the musical plays it way too cautiously. Instead of a borderline juvenile delinquent, we get a harmless Fonz who's a secret softy.

In this case, imitation is the sincerest form of safety net. Eli Zoller has all the moves down - a bit too pat. He needs to OWN The Fonz, not approximate him. The voice, the attitude, even the acting chops - he's got all that. Zoller should let go of the studied-gesture water wings.

As Richie Cunningham, Andrew Pandaleon faces fewer iconic hurdles, perhaps because Ron Howard hasn't had that much hair in decades. He's wholesome, true and, well, boring without The Fonz to give him gumption.

What's hot in the musical? Pinky, Fonzie's love opposite to his black-and-white persona, is the show's "Dancing on the Moon" leading lady. Noel Molinelli is up to the finger-snapping challenge to music director Andrew Austin's beat. Dara Hartman as Richie's kid sister, Joanie, and Scotty Watson and Trudy Posey as their parents, bring an all-in-the-family vibe to the Milwaukee setting. After a lethargic Act I, Keith Andrews' direction and choreography push the momentum.

The trouble with Garry Marshall's musical is that he still seems encumbered by network censors and lowbrow expectations. Let it loose. Be silly. Take risks. Kids who don't (Warning to mine: This doesn't apply to you), wind up with regrets. Without a shot of courage, this show will suffer the same fate. But it can be saved by a creative stimulus package.

WHAT New York premiere of "Happy Days," the musical

WHEN | WHERE Through June 12 at Gateway Playhouse, 215 South Country Rd., Bellport

INFO $50-$56; 631-286-1133,

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