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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" is designed to be a tunesmith showcase, but a simplistic, undernourished book provides scant support for the pop songs of '50s/'60s composer and teen icon Neil Sedaka.

With:
Esther - Eileen Barnett Harvey - Nathan Holland Lois - Julie Dixon Jackson Marge - Leslie Spencer Smith Del - Ryan Nearhoff Gabe - Jeff Leatherwood

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” is designed to be a tunesmith showcase, but a simplistic, undernourished book provides scant support for the pop songs of ’50s/’60s composer and teen icon Neil Sedaka. Fortunately, a talented, hard-working six-member ensemble, under the guidance of Troy Magino, instills an infectious vitality into the proceedings, powering through the throwaway plot while projecting the songs directly to the audience.

Set during the 1960 Labor Day weekend, the tuner focuses on the shenanigans that abound onstage and behind the scenes at Esther’s Paradise Resort in the Catskills. When he isn’t bombarding the guests with well-worn but still comical Borscht Belt shtick, house comic-emcee Harvey (Nathan Holland) secretly carries a torch for preoccupied widowed resort owner Esther (Eileen Barnett).

Meanwhile, jilted bride Marge (Leslie Spencer Smith) and her aggressively stagestruck pal Lois (Julie Dixon Jackson) occupy Marge’s supposed-to-be honeymoon suite and eye the resort’s crooner heartthrob, Del (Ryan Nearhoff). Gazing forlornly at Marge from the wings is geekish cabana boy and secret songwriter Gabe (Jeff Leatherwood).

A plethora of Sedaka hits are tacked onto these doings, not always complemented by an occasionally out-of-tune onstage five-piece band and often too-quiet backstage backup singers. Title song is rendered to positive effect, both in its 1962 teeny-bopper-show opening version (Nearhoff) and Sedaka’s more soulful 1975 ballad arrangement (Holland).

The irrepressible Jackson consistently pumps up the onstage energy level as she soars through “Where the Boys Are,” “Stupid Cupid,” “My Friend” and “Little Devil/Stairway to Heaven” (in duet with Smith). As painfully introverted Marge, Smith offers captivating solo turns on “Lonely Nights” and “Solitaire.” She also unites with Leatherwood’s slowly evolving Gabe on “The Diary” and the musical highlight of the show, “Laughter in the Rain.”

Broadway vet Barnett (“Nine”) is vocally underused as a faux Jennie Grossinger but does project the yenta vitality of a much put-upon entrepreneur, tirelessly working to keep her struggling resort from going under. Barnett and Holland project the poignancy of lifelong friends finally discovering romance (“Next Door to an Angel,” “King of Clowns”).

Andrew Hammer’s expansive sets make great use of the Kavli Theater’s vast stage area, making viable helmer Magino’s interactive use of unsuspecting audience members as resort guests brought onstage as fodder for Nearhoff’s zesty uptempo outings on “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” and “Calendar Girl.”

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Kavli Theater at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza; 1,800 seats; $74 top

Production: A Cabrillo Music Theater presentation of a musical in two acts, music by Neil Sedaka, lyrics by Sedaka, Howard Greenfield and Cody Philip, book by Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters. Directed, choreographed by Troy Magino. Music direction, Michel Paternostro.

Crew: Sets, Andrew Hammer; costumes, Debbie Roberts; lighting, Jean-Yves Tessier; sound, Jonathan Burke; stage manager, Lindsay Martens. Opened and reviewed Jan. 9, 2009. Closes Jan. 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Esther - Eileen Barnett Harvey - Nathan Holland Lois - Julie Dixon Jackson Marge - Leslie Spencer Smith Del - Ryan Nearhoff Gabe - Jeff LeatherwoodWith: Amanda Brown, Erin Fagundes, Ron Rosen, Dave Newcomer, Tiffany Chandon, Kristofer Sundquist.

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