"Breaking Up" is hard to resist

I decided to take a little break from the deep-fried goodness of the Chenango County Fair Thursday night and spend a little time down in Greene with my good friend, Neil Sedaka.

I can’t really perpetuate that scenario much further than that, because the truth is I didn’t really know much about the oeuvre of Mr. Sedaka until I saw the Chenango River Theatre’s production of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” last night.

The play, a romantic farce set in a ‘60s Catskills resort, is built around the songs of Neil Sedaka, which are woven seamlessly into the plot, to great effect. And man, was this guy prolific! (Is, I would assume, as he’s still alive). I had no idea so many staples of that era were penned by (and many performed by) Neil Sedaka.

“Breaking Up” opens its show-within-a-show with a Labor Day weekend revue at the stereotypical Esther’s Paradise Resort in the Catskills. Groan-worthy comic Harvey Feldman (John Felix) does his Borscht Belt shtick while greasy lounge singer Del Delmonaco (Richard Rella Jr.) lays it on thick with the Sedaka tunes, much to the delight of his aging Jewish audience and the resort’s harried owner, Esther Simowitz (Lourelene Snedeker). Among the resort’s guests is recently-jilted bride Marge Gelman (Leah Monzillo), who’s dragged on what was supposed to be her honeymoon by her feisty best friend Lois Warner (Kim Morgan Dean), who stands in for the almost-groom and vows to make the most of the “already paid for” vacation. Rounding out the cast is bumbling stage hand Gabe Green (Joe Lehman), a secret songwriter who develops a crush on Marge. Marge, of course, is smitten with the more dashing but vapid Del, and ... well, this isn’t Shakespeare, folks. It’s easy to see where the plot is going, but getting there is more than half the fun.

While many of the Sedaka songs ( “Oh, Carol!” and “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” for example) are in the context of the stage show at Esther’s, many more are actually character-motivated. Marge confesses her deepest feelings in “The Diary,” Lois her frustrations with Marge in “Stupid Cupid” and even poor schmuck Harvey gets a tender moment with “King of Clowns.”

The standout number of the show for me, and the Sedaka song used to best effect, is “Where the Boys Are,” as the spunky Lois tries to convince Marge that there are other fish in the sea. Kim Morgan Dean kills this one not once, but twice, ably accompanied by Monzillo’s Marge, who has her own shining moment in “Lonely Night.”

Rella is perfectly smarmy as Del, matched in goofiness by Lehman’s Gabe. Personally, I wanted to see even more of Snedeker’s Esther, who nails the Central Casting Jewish mother role, and has some sweet moments with Felix’s Harvey.

Like last year’s Chenango River Theatre production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” is more about music and screwball comedy than plot, but that’s the point. It’s a rollicking adventure through a largely forgotten (or perhaps more accurately, discounted) songbook by an artist as brilliant and prolific as Neil Sedaka. Stick around for Act 2, and you’ll hear even more of his well-known numbers, like “Calendar Girl,” “Laughter in the Rain” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

Light, funny and up-tempo ... like the guests at Esther’s Paradise Resort, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” is exactly what you need on a late summer evening. The show, directed by Cathey Crowell Sawyer with musical direction by Michael Lewis Smith (and a stage band featuring my old pal Tom Rasely!) is at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene for only three weeks (Aug. 4-21), so get your tickets now! For show times and ticket information, visit chenangorivertheatre.org.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunjeff.

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