'Sweet Charity' is a sweet, old time

Logo for this year's production of Sweet Charity

Logo for this year's production of Sweet Charity at the John Engeman Theater in Northport. It runs Sept. 6-Oct. 28, 2012. (Credit: Handout)

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You'd think the shelf life for a musical about a reverse prostitute with a heart of gold would have expired by now. Yet "Sweet Charity," bursting back to life at Northport's John W. Engeman Theater, makes us grow fonder as memories fade.

The Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields-Neil Simon musical, based on Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," premiered on Broadway in 1966. While Fellini's character is a prostitute, Charity Hope Valentine, played at Northport with upbeat denial by Sarrah Strimel, is a Manhattan dancehall "hostess." She doesn't sleep with guys who pay to squeeze her on the dance floor. But she pays her gentlemen friends to pretend they respect her. She always picks up the tab. In return, the guy we first see her with plunders her purse and shoves her into a lake.

Later, she sort of spends the night with Vittorio, an Italian film star -- maybe he knows Fellini -- whose va-voom girlfriend (Lisa Donmall-Reeve) dumps him in front of a hotel. Instantly rebounding, Vittorio invites Charity to his room. But when the apologetic girlfriend returns, Charity hides in the closet.

Next, she's stuck in an elevator with Oscar, a serial neurotic who falls for Charity after they fall asleep while stuck between floors.

Will Anyguy rescue Charity from her dismal career? We're not telling.

Charity's beaus are played by Jamie LaVerdiere, who displays an impressive range, from sick to suave to borderline psychotic. (That's a compliment.) Charity's dancehall mates, led by Lisa Karlin and Debra Walton, put together a down-and-dirty "Big Spender," an iconic number with lusty embellishments. A hippie-cult scene featuring David Glaspie evokes either laugh-out-loud nostalgia for boomers or a history lesson for whippersnappers.

But "Charity" goes begging without an infectiously effusive title character. As the lovable loser with nothing going for her but legs, looks and lung power, Strimel almost has you believing in fairy-tale romance, with the help of James Olmstead's snappy orchestra. We root for her on "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and feel her desperation on "Where Am I Going?"

Kevin Judge's set rises from the Fandango Ballroom to the top of a Ferris wheel through lighting tricks by Todd Wren. Sixties-appropriate costumes (John Davenport) embroider director Alan Souza and choreographer Al Blackstone's vision of let-loose freedom.

Charity may not be pure, but her show is sweet and, in the end, almost real.

WHAT "Sweet Charity"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 28, John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main St.

TICKETS $65; engemantheater.com, 631-261-2900

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