July 15, 2018

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Laughter in the rain

Singing Neil Sedaka's hits for Rainbow Stage season opener brings back bittersweet memories

Pop star Neil Sedaka is all over Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, the jukebox musical opening tonight at Rainbow Stage. But this is not a play in the vein of past Rainbow shows such as Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story or Ring of Fire, which functioned as biographies of Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash respectively.

Breaking Up is a fantasia inspired by Sedaka’s music, just as the repertoire of ABBA fuelled the romantic comedy of Mamma Mia! and the hair metal of the 1970s and ‘80s inspired Rock of Ages. Sedaka’s songs provide a romantic foundation for a story of loves lost and found in a Catskills resort in the early 1960s.

That specific milieu was an attraction for Winnipeg actress Debbie Maslowsky, who plays Esther, the widowed proprietor of Esther’s Paradise Resort, the setting for the musical’s romantic shenanigans.

“Debbie told me on the first day of rehearsal that her dream was to perform in the Catskills, where this is set,” says Carson Nattrass, Rainbow’s artistic director. “As a young Jewish performer, Neil Sedaka was their star. And she performed all this music with her late brother Jerry, and it means the world to her to sing this music again at the stage where she’s featured on the Wall of Fame.

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Pop star Neil Sedaka is all over Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, the jukebox musical opening tonight at Rainbow Stage. But this is not a play in the vein of past Rainbow shows such as Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story or Ring of Fire, which functioned as biographies of Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash respectively.

Breaking Up is a fantasia inspired by Sedaka’s music, just as the repertoire of ABBA fuelled the romantic comedy of Mamma Mia! and the hair metal of the 1970s and ‘80s inspired Rock of Ages. Sedaka’s songs provide a romantic foundation for a story of loves lost and found in a Catskills resort in the early 1960s.

Theatre preview

Click to Expand

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
● Book by Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters, music by Neil Sedaka
● To Sunday, July 22
● Tickets $55-$65 at tickets.rainbowstage.ca

That specific milieu was an attraction for Winnipeg actress Debbie Maslowsky, who plays Esther, the widowed proprietor of Esther’s Paradise Resort, the setting for the musical’s romantic shenanigans.

"Debbie told me on the first day of rehearsal that her dream was to perform in the Catskills, where this is set," says Carson Nattrass, Rainbow’s artistic director. "As a young Jewish performer, Neil Sedaka was their star. And she performed all this music with her late brother Jerry, and it means the world to her to sing this music again at the stage where she’s featured on the Wall of Fame.

Debbie Maslowsky, with Wayne Buss, loves Sedaka songs. (Robert Tinker photos)

Debbie Maslowsky, with Wayne Buss, loves Sedaka songs. (Robert Tinker photos)

"It’s not just nostalgia," Nattrass says of the music. "It’s deeper for a lot of people."

Maslowsky says there is a Yiddish word to describe her relationship to the material.

"It’s bashert, which means ‘meant to be, serendipitous.’ When I looked at it, I thought: ‘OK, this, to me, is bashert."

Even so, taking the role was not altogether easy for Maslowsky.

"This is the first show I’ve done in two years," she says, referring to her last appearance in the Royal MTC’s 2016 production of Billy Elliot. Maslowsky’s brother Jerry Maslowsky died in September 2016, and his passing was tough on her.

Performing Sedaka songs is both poignant and therapeutic for Maslowsky.

Performing Sedaka songs is both poignant and therapeutic for Maslowsky.

"We performed together for over 40 years and I just needed a little time," she says.

Sedaka featured prominently in the repertoire of Jerry and Debbie on the stage of The Hollow Mug, a popular dinner theatre in the former International Inn on Wellington Avenue.

"I started my performing career in the Hollow Mug when I was just 18," she says, recalling that Sedaka hits such as Breaking Up Is Hard to Do and Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen were regularly featured on the stage’s ‘60s-themed shows.

"I know this music anyway just from listening to it," she says. "As for his later stuff, my brother had a bar mitzvah band and they used to perform it all the time.

"I loved his music, absolutely," she says. "There’s just something about the sweetness of it and there’s quite a bit of storytelling in his songs that I didn’t realize when I listened to him on the radio or watched him on American Bandstand," she says, catching herself. "I can’t believe I can actually say that, but I can."

Laura Olfason, Darren Martens, Joseph Sevillo and Katie German.

Laura Olfason, Darren Martens, Joseph Sevillo and Katie German.

Performing the songs can be poignant now, she admits, as well as being tough and therapeutic.

"The first week, I found it difficult just on a variety of levels," she says. "Our musical director is Danny Carroll, and Danny also played for us at the Hollow Mug, and he played for my brother Jerry and I, and so the memories were warm and wonderful and sad at the same time."

One song in particular, Solitaire, has rekindled strong memories for Maslowsky.

"It’s a song he used to sing. It kind of stops me. I get a little verklempt just talking about it."

"But ‘therapeutic’ is where I’m landing," she says. "It’s very therapeutic the power of theatre and musical comedy.

"But I do love his music, so even at the first few rehearsals when we were just singing through music, it just warmed my heart," Maslowsky says.

"This is so hokey, but it kind of felt like coming home, listening to that music again," she says. "It was a simpler time."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Darren Martens and Laura Olafson.

Darren Martens and Laura Olafson.

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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