Borscht Belt Humor in Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

WINTER PARK — During a cold week in January, theater goers may want to escape the frigid winds by heading inside the Winter Park Playhouse, which takes them, back to a summer, in a production set in the Catskills Mountains. It’s a Borscht Belt resort that attracts up and coming Jewish talent known for their vaudevillian comedy and vibrant singing voices. It’s September 1960, and the resort is finishing out the Labor Day weekend before closing up until next summer.

Their top talent is comedian Harvey and singer Del Delmonico, who’s certain he’s heading for the big time — certainly much bigger than a little Catskills resort. And he seems to get his big chance when resort manager Esther announces that a talent agent from American Bandstand heard about Del and will be coming up that Sunday night to see his show. If he likes it, Del could be on his way to appearing before a national TV audience, and the resort could become famous for launching his career. With their air conditioner dying, that’s no small accomplishment.

But problems arise. And it’s not just the resort’s problematic hot chili.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Day, which opened on Friday and continues through Feb. 17, is back at The Playhouse after an earlier production a decade ago, and the show’s sweet humor is just one of its main selling points.

What is Breaking Up Is Hard To Do?

This musical by playwrights Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters manages to be a lot of things, including a nostalgic look back at those popular resorts that attracted Jewish audiences from New York City eager for a break from the summer heat, and it’s also a salute to the humor that Borscht Belt comedians made famous in their day.

Musically, though, it heartily salutes one of the most talented Jewish songwriters of our time, Neil Sedaka. Together with lyricists such as Howard Greenfield and Phillip Cody, Sedaka wrote massive early 1960s hits such as “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Oh, Carol,” which are given fantastic renditions here by the cast.

While Sedaka fell out of favor in the late 1960s, he enjoyed a big revival in the 1970s, and his songs of that era — “Lonely Nights,” “Laughter In The Rain” and the showstopper “Love Will Keep Us Together” — feature prominently in the show as well. If you’re a Sedaka fan like me, you’re going to find yourself totally captivated with this production.

We follow the story not only through the eyes of the resort’s employees but also Marge and Lois, who came up from the Big Apple to enjoy the weekend, and Gabe, the resort’s handyman and Mr. Fixit who has some unique talents of his own. Everybody soon discovers that Del is as vain and shallow as he is a talented singer, and there’s love in the air in multiple ways. With the talent agent on his way, everybody has a stake in that Sunday night show.

The show’s old-fashioned, often delightfully corny humor works nicely with Sedaka’s catchy, upbeat, feel-good songs,. Of course, the Playhouse team brings their own pizzaz to this Borscht Belt weekend.

How is the Winter Park Playhouse’s Production?

With such good material at his disposal, director Rob Winn Anderson keeps the production lively and engaging, and he has more tools at his disposal than simply those classic Sedaka songs. The casting is perfect, and enhances your enjoyment of this show by leaps and bounds.

Both Sahid Pabon (Del) and Alexander Mrazek (Harvey) seem to be having a grand time here, and these are very funny roles, no question there. Both men not only deliver some great laughs but have a few knockout singing duets.

Kelly Wells has her own riotous moments as the kvetching Esther, and Tay Anderson (Marge) and Avianna Tato (Lois) couldn’t be better as the wide-eyed innocents from Brooklyn, who never expected to find romance in the Catskills. Ryan Matthew rounds out the cast as the shy, nerdy Gabe, the handyman who is much more talented than he initially appears. Central Casting truly delivered here.

Pabon and Tato are making their Playhouse debut with this production, and let’s hope they both come back for many more shows.

Where Can I See Breaking Up Is Hard To Do?

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do is being performed at The Winter Park Playhouse, 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park, now through Feb. 17. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.,Thursday, Friday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and select Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.   

Ticket prices are $46 for evening shows, $43 for senior tickets for evening shows, $39 for matinees, and $20 tickets for students aged 15-25, active military and theatrical industry professionals. Student rush “$10@10” offers $10 tickets (for students 25 years and younger) 10 minutes prior to a performance when seats are available. 

For more tickets and information call the box office at 407-645-0145 or visit online at www.winterparkplayhouse.org .

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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