Neil Sedaka’s back—again—in Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, the entertaining new musical which features his most famous hits from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Like its fellow “jukebox musicals” Mamma Mia and All Shook Up (which built plots around the music of ABBA and Elvis), Breaking Up Is Hard To Do concocts a hit-based tale, this one taking place on an early 1960s Labor Day Weekend at “Esther’s Paradise Resort” in New York’s famed Catskill Mountains.  While not as grand as its predecessors (BUIHTD features a cast of six and a five-member band) and somewhat weaker in the storyline department, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do proves nonetheless to be an entirely enjoyable evening of musical theater, thanks in large part to its sensational performances and the zippy direction/choreography of the always stellar Troy Magino.

A bit of background for those too young to have ever heard of Neil Sedaka, himself just a teenager when he first hit the charts in 1958 with his self-penned “The Diary.” Singer-songwriter Sedaka bridged the rock-and-roll mid-fifties and Beatles-inspired mid-sixties with a half-dozen or so Top 10 hits including “Oh Carol,” “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” and the titular “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” Like his fellow teen heartthrobs Ricky Nelson, Bobby Rydell, and Frankie Avalon, Sedaka’s string of hits ended with the British Invasion—that is, until his 1974 comeback LP, “Sedaka’s Back,” which featured “Laughter In The Rain,” “Solitaire,” and “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and its 1975 follow-up “The Hungry Years,” with its remake-as-ballad of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”

All of these songs, and more, provide the framework of Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’s book by Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters.

It’s the last weekend of the summer season at Esther’s, where Catskills’ teen-idol Del Delmonico (Ryan Nearhoff) is hoping to parlay his local fame to national celebrity on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Meanwhile, arriving for a Catskills honeymoon weekend are Marge (Leslie Spencer Smith) and Lois (Julie Dixon Jackson.) No, the two young ladies didn’t get married, this being the 1960s after all. As Lois explains, “Marge and Leonard had a little bit of a tiff.  He went to pick up the flowers and ended up picking up the florist.”  So Lois has convinced Marge not to let the pre-paid weekend go to waste and the two soon find more romance than they could ever have dreamed of.

Marge and Lois both fall under the spell of Del Delmonico while Del’s nerdy ghost-songwriter friend Gabe (Jeff Leatherwood) finds himself instantly smitten by the lovely, albeit equally nerdy Marge. Meanwhile, “Catskills Classic” comedian Harvey (Nathan Holland) pines for Esther’s Esther (Eileen Barnett), who’s got more important matters on her mind, like making sure that vacationers arrive promptly for breakfast at 6:30, lunch at 11:30, and dinner at 5:30, and financing about $8000 of repairs.

When Del learns that American Bandstand’s Artie Shields is coming to hear him sing on Labor Day Sunday, the singer (and pseudo-songwriter) can’t believe his lucky stars. This could be his chance to appear on TV, with Dick Clark no less! At the same time, would-be songstress Lois has her own plan. She and Marge are going to sing backup for Del, and Lois is going to get a kiss from the sexy singer.  And proving that she’s a true best friend, Lois decides to spice up Marge’s weekend by telling Del that Marge’s father is a singers’ manager, thus insuring that Del will court the heartbroken almost-bride.

Since Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’s taffeta-thin plotline makes Mamma Mia’s seem positively dense by comparison, it’s the songs and performances that carry the evening along, that and the Borscht Belt humor of lines like Harvey’s “I’m so old, when I was a kid, the Dead Sea was just sick.”  (How old are Harvey’s jokes?  They’re so old that the entire band can provide the punch lines—in unison.)

Sedaka hits (major and minor) provide the musical soundtrack to Marge and Lois’s weekend.  Left alone in their room, jilted fiancée Marge belts out a tearful “Lonely Nights,” then joins Lois for the Sedaka-penned Connie Francis hit “Where The Boys Are” in hopes of finding some at Esther’s. Gabe fantasizes that Marge has fallen for him in “The Diary” (“Am I the boy that you care for? The boy who is in your diary.”)  Harvey bemoans Esther’s lack of romantic interest in him in “King Of Clowns” and Gabe does the same vis-à-vis Marge in “The Other Side Of Me” (“Why can’t you see what’s on the other side of me?”).

Audience members figure in two of the evening’s funniest song sequences. A January birthday girl joins Del center stage to be serenaded with “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen.” (On opening night, octogenarian Leatrice was the lucky gal.)  Later, four audience males join the cast onstage for “Calendar Girl,” and end up bedecked with month-appropriate garb (three months per man).

Under less assured direction than that of Magino, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do might fizzle instead of sizzle, but with Magino (Altar Boyz, Thoroughly Modern Millie) at the helm, there’s scarcely a dull moment, and his bouncy choreography allows the triple-threat cast to show off their dancing feet.

Handsome newcomer Nearhoff is a real find as egocentric heartthrob Del, milking every comic moment as he swivels his hips, strips off his shirt, and belts out hits with the best of them.  Jackson, fresh from her long run as 50s songbird Betty Lou in the megahit The Marvelous Wonderettes, is as always a delight, and her duets of “Where The Boys Are” with Marge and “Stupid Cupid” with Del prove once again that Jackson has some of the best pipes in town.  

In 180-degree turnabouts from their most recent roles, Holland and Barnett are equally spiffy.  Holland moves from his scene-stealingly comedic headwaiter in She Loves Me to his best Shecky Greene as punchline-ready Harvey.  Barnett, heartbreaking as Molina’s mother in Kiss Of The Spider Woman, is non-stop pizzazz here as resort owner Esther.  

Finally, there are the star-making turns of Smith and Leatherwood, as the most vocally gifted pair of nerds you’re ever likely to see.  Smith graduates from her fine supporting work as Abigail Adams in 1776 to center stage as the klutzy but endearing Marge, and demonstrates Broadway-ready pipes with a powerful rendition of “Solitaire.” Leatherwood, whose awesome performance in the title role was the sole reason to see last year’s Bat Boy, once again proves himself on the fast track to stardom with his work here as Gabe, who moves from deliberate near-invisibility at curtain up to virtual ownership of Act 2. Charismatic Leatherwood has a tenor to die for, which he shows of in “The Diary” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

Providing crackerjack musical direction (and keyboard work) is Michael Paternostro, the only man in showbiz who can alternate between dance roles on Broadway (A Chorus Line, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Fosse, etc.) and equally fine work as a musical director here in L.A. (Thrill Me, Kiss Of The Spider Woman).  Providing rocking backup are Eli Hludzik on drums, Gary Rautenberg on saxophone, Nicholas Schaadt on Bass, and Mallory Trunnell on guitar.

Andrew Hammer’s original set design evokes the 50s/60s Catskills in cotton candy colors, ably assisted by Jean-Yves Tessier’s always excellent lighting.  Debbie Robert’s costume designs are just as colorful and period-perfect. Jonathan Burke deserves highest marks as well for his sound design as does Paul Hadobas for hair and wig design.

By the time the entire cast gathers for the grand finale of “Love Will Keep Us Together,” the audience is on its feet cheering and singing along. “Breaking Up” may be “Hard To Do,” but it’s quite easy indeed to enjoy the tuneful fluff that is Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. 

Fred Kavli Theatre, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
January 9, 2009
                                                               Photos: Ed Krieger

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