BY SANDY STAGGS
Centre Stage, for the third year in row, concludes it season by stepping back in time to the age of innocence in American pop music. Following the tradition of the Andrew Sisters biography “Sisters of Swing” and last year’s mega-hit “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” is set to the music of pop star and composer Neil Sedaka
.Like Carole King, who he dated briefly in high school, Sedaka worked in the Tin Pan Alley’s famous Brill Building which fomented some of the greatest songwriters of two generations. But while King wrote music for other artists until her breakout iconic “Tapestry” album, Sedaka began as a teen idol in the late 1950s , and later, with longtime lyricist Howard Greenfield, wrote a slew of hits for female pop and rock singers.
However, don’t expect another “Beautiful” in this sweet production. “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” is not biographical, but it is a better-than-your-average jukebox musical with an amusing story and fully-drawn characters. In fact, it’s more “Dirty Dancing” (or rather “Clean Dancing” with nostalgic choreography by Mary Evan Giles) than “Beautiful.” Though it does feature a Neil Sedaka wannabee, Del Delmonaco , played by Centre Stage regular Joshua Thomason (“Rockin’ The Keys,” “Ghost: The Musical” and “Jekyll & Hyde”) who appears nightly at Esther’s Paradise Resort in the Catskill Mountains, the preferred summer destination of New York Jewish residents and performers for decades.
The location – Genesis Garza’s gorgeous bandstand stage painted in a cabana theme Miami cotton candy blue and pink hues painted by Clint Walker) gives writers Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters a legitimate device for the actors to organically perform such Sedaka classics as the title song, “Lonely Night,” Stupid Cupid” (made famous by Connie Francis), “Oh, Carol” (named after King), “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” and many others.
The primary storyline involves jilted-at-the-synagogue Marge and her BFF Lois (college students Mariel Zmarzly and Carly Anne Roper in their Centre Stage debut). I have seen both of these divine divas (musically not attitudes) before Anderson University in “White Christmas” and in the Mill Town Players’ “Grease” respectively. To cheer up the devastated Marge, Lois convinces her to go on the bought-and-paid-for-honeymoon weekend and maybe even hook her up with the dashing – and very vain – crooner Delmonaco, a role Thomason dives right into with aplomb. The ladies’ pitch perfect rendition of “Where the Boys Are” sets them on a romantic weekend mission. But in reality Del is only trying to further his career because he thinks Marge’s dad is a music “manager” and a path to stardom.
Then things get a little complicated when the geeky cabana boy Gabe, played by former Greenville Little Theatre Sterling Street resident actor, become love struck with Marge. Street is hitting his stride in this show where his nimble Jerry Lewis dexterity, boyish charm, and big vibrato shine. I have enjoyed both his and Thomason’s performances over the last few years and witnessed their artistic range enough to know that on any given night, these actors could easily switch parts and the audience would be none the wiser.
Adding to the romance is Harvey, the house comedian (played by one of the Upstate’s finest character actors Rod McClendon), who has a trunkful of stale vaudevillian gags like the never-ending s hanky in a rousing and clever “King of Clowns,“ a well as burning torch for the resort’s widowed owner Esther (Arleen Black, a dead ringer in her wig to a much slimmer Melissa McCarthy, who is more concerned with keeping the failing resort open than the advances of a comic past his prime, at least initially.
Director Reed Halvorson keeps the proceedings simple, light and fluffy and has found fun ways to stage some of the numbers like the mega-hits “Love Will Keep Us Together” (remember the Captain & Tennille?) and “Calendar Girl” as Zmarzly and Roper traipse the stage in costume props reflecting the holidays throughout the year. Holly Caprell’s supreme vocal direction has the entire cast hitting all the right notes. And Victor DeLeon’s styled wigs and Stacey Hawks’ costumes are flawless.
The live four-piece house band dresses the part and is adept at the many ballads and pop ditties: Stan Wietrzychowski is conductor and pianist, Jordan Hammer on bass, Johnny Culwell on guitar and Kip Brock at the drums. That’s Culwell you hear singing falsetto backing on Sedaka’ early bubble gum hits.
“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” may not be a life-changer, but the show is entertaining and stocks a talented cast who honor Sedaka’s extensive songbook.
“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” plays at Greenville’s Centre Stage through Aug. 18, Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are available online at CentreStage.org.