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Free Synagogue’s ‘Sweet Charity’ a nostalgia-trippy delight

Monica Barczak stars in the title role of "Sweet Charity" at Free Synagogue of Flushing.
By Arlene McKanic

“Sweet Charity,” written by Neil Simon, with lyrics and music by Cy Coleman and the great Dorothy Fields, feels like a transitional musical between the sweet and fluffy stuff like “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” (Nazis notwithstanding) and the tougher fare, like “Sweeney Todd,” that was to come.

Set around 1966 and premiering at the same time, the protagonist was a ballroom hostess/taxi dancer named Charity — back in the Mad Men days she couldn’t be a flat-out prostitute and be the star of an American musical comedy. She falls for a chap who could be read by the more sophisticated audience members as a gay man. He’s in therapy, freaks out in stalled elevators and is named Oscar, after all. Indeed, when Oscar reveals that he’s reluctant to marry because of “the men,” I immediately thought that he was talking not about the men in Charity’s life, but the men in his.

Later, there are dollops of flower power and subtle signs of feminist consciousness-raising. But no matter. The show, in its latest entertaining incarnation at the Free Synagogue of Flushing Community Theatre, has aged well, and songs like “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” are still knockouts.

Mark Lord directs a large and talented cast. Monica Barczak’s Charity is rosy, childlike, vulgar, occasionally exasperating and always striving for something better. Her singing voice is lovely and has a tenderness even through the celebratory numbers. Times being what they are, Charity Hope Valentine still believes her salvation lies through a man, and her heart, as one of her coworkers says, is a hotel where men come and go as they will.

Laura S. Packer and Jenna Kantor are wonderful as Helene and Nickie, her best friends at the dance hall, two slinky broads with hearts of gold — if gold can be somewhat tarnished. Mike Bua is all surface bluster as Herman, the dancehall boss who whips the girls into line for the customers, and Nick Radu is poignant as the conflicted and neurotic Oscar.

Making a brief but memorable appearance is Jimmy O’Neill as Vittorio Vidal, the Italian movie idol in whose apartment Charity takes a break. Their maneuvers while Vittorio makes up with his girlfriend Ursula (a fiery Crystalla Gonzalez) and Charity sneaks out of his apartment with some of his stuff is hilarious. Liam MacLarty is uproarious as Daddy Brubeck, the peace-and-love guru who runs the church Oscar and Charity find themselves visiting. The energy of the scene, which features the ensemble cast, is so over the top — everyone in beads, flowers, glitter, headbands and tie-dye — that it still feels contemporary. Watching Oscar and Charity try to keep up with all the hippie gyrations is another delight.

Though this version lacks Bob Fosse’s choreography, choreographers Jennifer Jules and Maryellen Pierce make good use of FSF’s little stage, as do scenic designers Pierce and John Baratta. Also noteworthy are musical director Paul L. Johnson and his live band. Pauline Baratta’s costumes, not only the frou-frou of the Daddy scene but ordinary miniskirts, bring a lovely whiff of nostalgia.

Sweet Charity will be at FSF through November 21.

If You Go:

When: Nov. 20,, 8 p.m., Nov. 21, 3 p.m.

Where: Free Synagogue of Flushing, 41-60 Kissena Blvd., Flushing

Cost: $16, $14 for seniors

Contact: (718) 229-8547 or fsfctg@yahoo.com

Website: spotlightonstage.com/fsfctg.htm

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