News Column

'Happy Days' closes season for WVPT

July 25, 2013

YellowBrix

July 25--"HAPPY DAYS: A NEW MUSICAL" is set for 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Aug. 1, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2-3, and 2 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Metropolitan Theatre. For tickets, gift certificates and season subscriptions, call 304-291-4122 or 1-877-999-WVPT (9878) or visit wvpub lictheatre.org.

In high school, you could find Teays Valley native Derek Keeling on the track field.

But since leaving West Virginia to pursue his acting career roughly 15 years ago, Keeling's bread and butter has been depicting the kind of leather-clad tough guys who would mock his team spirit.

In fact, those who caught the NBC competition series "Grease: You're the One That I Want" may remember him as a contestant. He later went on to play the role of Danny Zuko in a Broadway production.

He's was also the Elvis-esque lead in a regional premiere of "All Shook Up" and Johnny Cash in the first national tour of "Million Dollar Quartet."

So, it seems only fitting, Keeling said, that his first professional return to the state comes in the form of Arthur Fonzarelli, for West Virginia Public Theatre's (WVPT) "Happy Days: A New Musical."

The show, directed by Chris Saunders, is set for Wednesday-Aug. 4 at High Street's Metropolitan Theatre.

And, it's actually the second time the actor has played the part of the '50s bad boy made famous by the television series upon which the musical is based.

"Fonzie is not a real person, but people think he is because they saw him on TV so much. So, I do have a responsibility to do it the way Henry Winkler did it. I want to pay homage to that certain expectation," he said.

The first time around, that meant catching up on plenty of episodes of the hit '70s show. For the WVPT gig, things are a bit easier, preparation-wise -- a plus, since the actors only have about a week's worth of rehearsals.

"I can access it, since I've done it before," Keeling said. "It's fun to play."

And while the idea of a man who can snap his fingers and make all the girls swoon is far-fetched, there's another side to Fonzie that Keeling relates to.

"For this particular production, you see past his rough ex- terior to the humanity in him. He has to face his own limitations and weaknesses."

These come in the form of a bum knee and a broken heart.

The former is exposed when Fonz is set to wrestle a pair of rivals in a wrestling match meant to raise funds to save Arnold's, a spot where everyone hangs out. The latter comes to light when ex-girlfriend Pinky Tuscadero pops into town.

Like Fonzie, Tuscadero's warmth is hidden beneath her bravado.

"She's so special," said Elise Kinnon, who portrays Tuscadero. "She's the female version of Fonz. She's tough and feisty and really proud. I appreciate that. As a blond female actress, I often play really ditzy roles, so it's nice to play someone tougher. And by the end, you get to see her softer side."

The idea that things aren't always as they appear is something that, through his profession, Keeling can relate to.

"It's like when I talk to friends from high school about what I do for a living," he said. "It sounds like all glamorous, fun stuff."

And while traveling the country on national tours can be exciting, Keeling said nights spent alone in hotel rooms in new cities can also be isolating.

"Those tough guys are actually very closed off, and that can be a lonely existence. ... That is something I can understand."

Based in Nashville, pursuing his musical career, this WVPT performance is Keeling's last scheduled theater gig for awhile.

"This [show] happened organically," he said.

He's is excited to be a part of the production -- and not just because it means his family has a shorter drive to come see him.

"I think it's a really fun time," Keeling said. "It's a nice family show. You can bring the kids and feel safe."

Kinnon agrees.

"It's light-hearted, and the dancing is amazing. The ensemble is just killing themselves. It's high intensity, but there are also beautiful ballads. It will grab the attention of any age group. It's not just for kids or adults. It's a family musical."

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(c)2013 The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.)

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