Sedaka hits woven seamlessly into CRT musical comedy

Reviewed by David L. Schriber

High-energy acting, strong vocals, flawless choreography and lighting, and a clever stage musical combined to showcase songs of Neil Sedaka as the Chenango River Theatre in Greene presented “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” (seen Friday, Aug. 19, as part of the show’s final weekend). The Eric Jackson-Ben Winters musical comedy,which  premiered in Albany in 2005, wove in 16 of Sedaka’s songs so well that one would think they were written expressly for this show.

It’s summer 1960. Marge Gelman (Leah Monzillo) arrives at Esther’s Paradise Resort on Loch Sheldrake in the Catskills. It’s supposed to be her honeymoon, but her fiancé left her at the altar, so she’s accompanied by her best friend, Lois Warner (Kim Morgan Dean), who’s determined not to let it “snow on her parade” and to help Marge get her groove back. Esther’s headliner crooner is narcissistic Italian stallion Del Delmonaco (Richard Rella Jr.), whose act drips with charm and testosterone. Marge doesn’t think much of Lois’ notion to finagle their way into the act as backup singers … until a backstage glimpse of shirtless Del convinces her that she too wants to be “Where the Boys Are.”

Del feigns a romantic interest in Marge, whose father, he believes, can advance his career, but it’s Del’s handyman cousin, Gabe Green (Joe Lehman), who has more in common with Marge. He’s also the ghostwriter of Del’s songs, and he needs to write a big one, because a Dick Clark talent scout will be in the audience Saturday.

Such a notable visitor puts pressure on resort owner and widow Esther Simowitz (Lourelene Snedeker) and her long-time emcee and comic, Harvey Feldman (John Felix), to spruce up the somewhat past-its-prime resort.

“Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” but Del has no trouble dumping Marge when he finds out her father is not a talent manager. Marge is devastated again, but Lois has a plan to get revenge while exposing Del for less than he seems and Gabe for more than meets the eye.

Rella played his character to the hilt, with fine vocals and body language that Elvis would have been proud of. He even got the audience lady in front-row center into the act, bringing her on stage to serenade her with “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen.”

Lehman was convincing as geeky, gawky cabana boy Gabe,whose fantasies of Marge gave clues of his metamorphosis-to-come. His tenor/soprano duets with Monzillo blended nicely.

Monzillo played the twice-jilted Marge believably. Some of her more introspective vocals started very quietly, but probably could still be heard throughout the intimate theater. In her duets with Dean she proved herself quite capable of filling the house with song. Dean played the self-assured Lois with verve, full-throated vocals and provocative vamping.

Felix was a perfect supporting actor, never upstaging the principals (well, OK, there was Mr. December in “Calendar Girl”). Patiently awaiting his moment in the plot, he showed the slap-happy Harvey’s vulnerability as he struggled to find a way to confess his love for Esther. Snedeker gave a solid supporting comedic performance as the slightly ditsy Esther, who kept having to make matter-of-fact announcements about the resort’s poison ivy and food poisoning.

The principals showed their versatility in a show demanding acting, singing and dancing. Mark Scherer’s choreography was carefully and confidently executed in the compact space. Julie Duro and Bill Brower’s lighting transitioned scenes clearly and focused attention well in busy scenes, especially when the focus was off-center stage. The four-piece band was tight with the flow. The whole cast and crew worked smoothly together with good pacing, never losing momentum or energy. Direct eye contact from the actors and occasional audience participation drew the audience right into the show. One would not have thought this cast came together from so many different places — New York, Chicago, and Florida — with much of the production staff (diector, music director, costume designer and stage manager) from West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley Theatre.

Two hours seemed to fly by. In the end, with changes of fortune — some predictable, some surprising — all of the characters got what they deserved, and even Harvey and Esther discovered that “Love Will Keep us Together.” On so many levels, this was a thoroughly enjoyable show!