Photo: Edison Graff
Photo: Edison Graff

It’s a 1970s/80s flashback with Didi Conn, Donny Most, Sandy Duncan, Adrian Zmed in ‘Middletown’ (Marietta’s Strand 2/18-2/23)

Originally posted Tuesday, February 4, 2020 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Before social media and the explosion of viewing options, the stars of 1970s and 1980s films and TV shows in a much smaller entertainment universe carried greater mystique and broader recogntion. 

This meant actors like Donny Most (Ralph Malph on “Happy Days”) and Didi Conn (Frenchy on “Grease”) became iconic to Generation X and Baby Boomers alike. They may not have been headliners like Ron Howard or Olivia Newton-John, but they were stars in their own right. 

Four decades later, GFour Productions decided to cast its play “Middletown” with actors from that era. Besides Most and Conn, Emmy and Tony-winning actress Sandy Duncan  (“Peter Pan,” “The Hogan Family”) and Adrian Zmed ( “Grease 2,” “T.J. Hooker”) are part of the current cast. 

Tested successfully in Las Vegas and Bucks County, Penn., “Middletown” will spend a week at the Strand Theatre in Marietta February 18 to 23. (Tickets here.)

The play is about two couples from Middletown, N.J. who meet for dinner every Friday for 33 years. It follows their roller-coaster trek from their 30s into their 60s. 

“We usually do big Broadway plays or vehicles from world-renowned authors,” said Seth Greenleaf, the director and co-producer, whose company has done tours such as “Menopause The Musical” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” “’Middletown’ just sneaks up on you. It starts off fun and cute. It gets into your bloodstream and you’re very affected by the end. It’s special magic for everyone.” 

Photo: CR: publicity photo. Didi Conn's iconic role is Frenchie from 'Grease"

Greenleaf said having these stars on stage creates an immediate sense of familiarity for the audience. And the names help sell tickets, he said, because plays are harder to promote than musicals. 

The play in the past has featured Cindy Williams ( “Laverne & Shirley”) and Sally Struthers (“All in the Family”). 

The producers - including playwright Dan Clancy - also decided to stage this play differently. There are no traditional props or sets. Instead, each person stands behind a music stand, script in front of them. 

“Audience members end up focusing on the voices,” Greenleaf said. “The focus is on the warmth between them. We don’t distract with staging... You take out all the bells and whistles and you’re left with voice and heart. The audience is leaning in, trying to absorb every word.”

In an interview, Most said he was a little wary at first of the unusual staging but once he actually did it, he found it effective.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “It worked beautifully beyond my expectations. The audience response was fabulous.”

Photo: Didi Conn played Donny Most's girlfriend in an early "Happy Days" episode CR: special from Didi Conn

Conn will play Dotty, a rambunctious, opinionated woman marred to Don, played by Most. (The fact Most’s real name is Don is coincidental.) Don is a blue-collar dude who runs a pool cleaning business, a “little rough around the edges,” Most said. 

The chemistry between the two of them goes back literally decades: Conn’s first acting job in Hollywood was playing Donny’s girlfriend on ‘Happy Days” in the mid 1970s. 

Most was amazed when he saw the photo she had saved of the two of them together on set 45 years ago. “I enjoyed working with her then,” Most said. “Everything was new to me. Some memories from those early days of ‘Happy Days’ stand out. She stood out. Doing this play with her is such a joy. I am looking forward to more.”

Dotty’s best friend in the play is Peg, a more erudite, anxious person played by Duncan, who will also be the primary narrator. 

“Dotty and Peg meet on the first day of kindergarten,” Conn said. “Peg is a very overprotective mother and fearful of leaving her child. Dotty is much more devil-may-care. She’d go for a drink even if it’s only 8 in the morning.”

Conn said there’s a line near the end of the play that quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

“It’s so true,” she said. “We put out love without any expectation in return yet it brings back so much.”

Sandy Duncan attends the Broadway Opening Night performance of 'The Front Page' at the Broadhurst Theatre on October 20, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Joe Russo/imageSPACE). *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***
Photo: imageSPACE/Joe Russo/imageSPACE/Sipa USA

And their friendship as couples endure, Conn said, because “they never judge each other. They just enjoy each other through children, infidelity, health issues and mortality.” 

Conn, who spent a lot of time in Atlanta taking care of her late mother in the early 2000s, remains close to many of her “Grease” castmates, especially Newton-John. 

“The very first scene we were together,” she said, recalling the production more than 42 years ago. “We were coming on the campus of Rydell High School. She was very nervous. Not that I was a particularly seasoned performer. I had only done two other films. I loved to improvise so I started doing that with her as they were setting up the lights. As Frenchy, I began asking Sandy what school was like in Australia and she told me about her time there where the boys and girls were separated and she had to wear gloves. So when they said, ‘Action!’ she was a lot more comfortable. Afterwards, she gave me this big hug and thanked me. That started a friendship that has lasted more than 40 years.”

Most, since “Happy Days,” has focused more on dramatic roles in independent films and his singing career. His only stop in Atlanta before this was in 1981 during a tour of “Damn Yankees” with Dick Van Dyke

He remains close buddies with his brother in arms on “Happy Days” Anson Williams, who played Potsie. “We see each other weekly,” he said. “When we’re in public, people get a big kick recognizing us. Sometimes I get recognized when I’m by myself but it’s something special when we’re together.” 

IF YOU GO

“Middletown”

7:30 p.m. February 18-23 with 2 p.m. performances on Feb. 22 and 23 as well

$39-$52

Strand Theatre in Marietta Square

117 North Park Square, Marietta

earlsmithstrand.org

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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