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Theater review: 'Breaking Up Is Hard to Do' in Thousand Oaks

January 12, 2009 |  5:00 pm

BreakingupishardtodoIn musical theater geometry, the shortest distance between two golden oldies is a paper-thin plot line. Taking this axiom to heart, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza strings together 17 classic songs by early-1960s pop icon Neil Sedaka with a story so flimsy it makes "Mamma Mia!" seem positively Dickensian.

This 2005 jukebox musical employs its book by Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters mainly to bridge the Sedaka chart-busters that remain the central attraction in Troy Magino’s breezy staging.

Lifting its name, period sensibilities and opening number from Sedaka's signature uptempo 1962 hit, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" takes place over a Labor Day weekend getaway at a budget Catskills resort (a setting that further narrows the show’s target demographic). In this Cabrillo Music Theatre production, vacationing Lois (Julie Dixon Jackson), an aspiring singer, has brought along her recently jilted friend Marge (Leslie Spencer Smith) for some cheering up -- a serviceable lead-in to "Where the Boys Are" that typifies the show's formula of setting up its songs with a minimum of connecting dialogue.

Jackson and Smith, both veterans of the recent retro hit "The Marvelous Wonderettes," turn in assured, charismatic performances in roles that shrewdly showcase some of the Sedaka songs originally popularized by singer Connie Francis. As "Stupid Cupid," Lois selflessly tricks handsome, narcissistic resort headliner Del Delmonico (Ryan Nearhoff) into dating Marge, despite her own attraction to the virile but shallow crooner.

Marge finds her natural anthem in "Lonely Nights," and when she scribbles down her private reflections, it's a cue for the nerdy hotel lackey, Gabe (Jeff Leatherwood), to pour out his infatuation for her in "The Diary."

Contrasting with the young couples are the sassy resort proprietress (Eileen Barnett) and the veteran stand-up comic (Nathan Holland), who brings sadder-but-wiser maturity to both "King of Clowns" and the reprised title song, appropriately performed this time in the slower nightclub version from Sedaka's mid-1970s comeback period.

The show's creators obviously did their homework, but their construction is rarely more than by-the-numbers. If a Sedaka tune strays too far from an easy narrative beat, the fallback is to simply shoehorn it into the resort's entertainment program (incorporating audience participation into some of these “show-within-a-show” segments is, as usual, a lazy way to pad running time without the burden of content creation). The utterly predictable romantic through lines -- coupled with some "Waiting for Guffman"-esque neurosis over a visiting talent scout from "American Bandstand" -- supply barely enough dramatic tension to nudge the show from one number to the next.

We’re clearly not in “Mamma Mia!” blockbuster territory here. But while Sedaka's songs may not enjoy ABBA's enduring mass appeal, their nostalgic charm proves infectious nonetheless, thanks to some fine voices and a lively five-piece band.

--Philip Brandes

"Breaking Up is Hard To Do," Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 18. $38-$74. (805) 449-2787). Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Caption: From left, Julie Dixon Jackson, Ryan Nearhoff and Leslie Spencer Smith in "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." Credit: Ed Krieger

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