Sunderland Empire is currently residing in a cloud of feel-good cool following the arrival of the Happy Days gang this week. Former Sugababe Heidi Range, Bucks Fizz queen Cheryl Baker and soap heartthrob Ben Freeman are leading the all-singing and all-dancing cast in a colourful homage to the iconic TV show.
While Heidi plays Pinky Tuscadero, Cheryl takes the maternal role of Mrs Cunningham, and you can surely guess who Ben is playing by the cut of his leather jacket.
The pressure to be as cool as the iconic Fonz wasn’t lost on him – particularly as Fonzie himself, Henry Winkler, was on board with the production as creative consultant.
“I was nervous. Now I feel a lot more comfortable in it and feel like I’ve found my own way through it... but it was hard working out how I was going to play it,” says Ben, who loyal viewers of Emmerdale will know as Scott Windsor.
“I’ve met him (Henry) a few times, but I don’t think he’s been to see the show yet. If it was me, it would be difficult not to be sentimental about a part that made you. The good thing for me was that it wasn’t like we were doing a biopic film. So I had artistic licence. This was how The Fonz would be in a musical – and it’s great fun on a daily basis.
“He’s a wonderful character and it’s an honour to be able to portray him on stage,” he continues. “It’s been a while since the show has been on.”
Not so long though, that Ben has forgotten what a treat it was to watch. “I don’t really know anyone of my age that doesn’t know Happy Days,” he says.
“It was such a magical show, like nothing else. It was such a family show – one where parents and children alike would watch together – and it had wonderful characters and was about kids my age. I loved it.”
And audiences seem to be loving this new touring incarnation of Happy Days, which boasts a book by the TV show’s writer, Garry Marshall, who also lists Pretty Woman, Beach-es and The Princess Diaries among his movie directing credits.
“He was there at our opening night,” says Ben. “It has been lovely to have people involved with the original on board with this production.”
For the uninitiated – if indeed there are any – Happy Days was set in the heady days of the late ’50s and had the identikit Cunningham Family – Mr and Mrs, Joanie and Ritchie – at its heart, as well as Arthur Fonzarelli of course, who all the guys wanted to be and all the girls wanted to be with.
The supporting cast came in the form of the wider gang: Potsie, Ralph Malph and Chachi, and the owner of their beloved diner, Arnold.
It is Arnold’s which serves as the centre point for the storyline. The place to be is up for demolition and it’s up to The Fonz – who else? – to save the day. It’s a knocking bet it will all end happily ever after...
:: Happy Days is at the Sunderland Empire until Saturday.