Jersey Boys may have walked like a man from the West End, but luckily London has a natural successor in Breaking Up is Hard to Do. Featuring a choice pick of Neil Sedaka’s back catalogue, it transports Upstairs at the Gatehouse to Catskills in New York for a whirlwind romantic comedy musical that will make you leave with a smile on your face and the songs stuck in your head.
It’s summer 1960 at Esther’s Paradise resort on what should have been Marge’s honeymoon – instead she’s there with best friend Lois trying to forget the most humiliating day of her life. Lois hatches a plan to cheer her friend up, by convincing resident singer Del to take an interest in her and to let the pair of them join him as backing singers on their final evening. Immediately smitten with heartthrob Del, Marge doesn’t notice the attention of his clumsy but sweet-natured cousin Gabe. But with the looming presence of a TV talent scout, will the new found happiness (and old family secrets) survive the pressure?
Breaking Up is Hard to Do sits in the section of the jukebox musical spectrum that tells an original story backed by already popular songs. The ever-present danger in this genre is that it will feel forced in some way: either the songs could be shoe-horned in, or the story could have no real substance to it (or both). In Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters’ creation this is no such problem. True, the story arc is fairly straightforward, but it has a natural quality to it – and, despite the compact running time and number of songs, there is good character development (most notably for Gabe) and some surprises thrown in along the way.
A romantic comedy is the ideal setting for a selection of Sedaka songs, given the wealth there is to choose from (covering love and loss through the course of his career). Even if you think you don’t know his songs, you’re guaranteed to recognise one or two – but not knowing the rest has no bearing on your enjoyment of the show. In fact, it’s testament to the choice and quality of the songs that you don’t need to recognise them; this is how other original musicals work, after all.
Richard Cooper’s design provides a thrust stage, complete with tables at the side to really give it the ‘Esther’s Paradise’ touch. This works well with the fact that the audience is often treated as patrons of the resort; an ingenious mobile phone announcement kicks off the show in this vein (a worthy contender for next year’s Also Recognised Awards) and it also allows for a little engagement with audience members, such as the recurring Mr or Mrs Weinblatt (don’t fear if you’re the chosen one, it’s all harmless fun). It’s also great to have the band – led by Oliver Hance – constantly visible across the stage, to give them the credit they’re due.
There isn’t a weak link in the all-singing, all-dancing cast. Abigail Carter-Simpson and Samuel Bailey provide great support in the ensemble, looking confident enough to step into any one of the cover roles they’re assigned; Andrew Bradley brings charm to veteran comic Harvey, and Katie Paine is a hoot as resort owner Esther.
Lauren Cocoracchio and Robyn Mellor have brilliant chemistry, adding an authenticity to Marge and Lois’ friendship. Both have fantastic voices, Cocoracchio providing one of the standout musical numbers of the night with her rendition of Solitaire. Following on from Sunny Afternoon, Damien Walsh steps out from behind the drums for this show and proves to be a natural leading man – his vocals are ideally suited to the typical 50s/60s pop on offer, and he gives Del a real swagger. Jonny Muir is instantly endearing as down-to-earth Gabe, with wonderful comic timing that really brings his character to life – one memorable moment being Gabe’s daydream during The Diary, as he imagines Marge reciprocating his feelings. In short, it is a dynamic group of leads that really make the show fly.
My verdict? A fun show that’s full of catchy tunes and entertaining performances – a perfect way to put a spring in your step!
Breaking Up is Hard to Do runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 23 April 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.