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‘Opa!’ mixes Hellenic hilarity and some Mediterranean heat

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“This is just about the most perfect play to see on a fall afternoon,” the writer said to the gentleman sitting next to her in the little theater at Queens Theatre in the Park. He agreed, even if he was the husband of the musical’s keyboardist and musical director, Elise Morris.

The show is “Opa! The Musical,” book by Mari Carras and Laurel Ollstein, with lyrics by Carras and Donald Eugster, with additional music and lyrics by Morris. It’s a goodhearted, lighthearted work now at Queens Theater in the Park.

The story begins when Sophia, a middle-aged Anna Magnani type, waylays the village priest before he can sneak out of their sleepy Greek island of Elia. She’s made the worst mistake of her life, she tells him, and it all started 20 years ago when she was a young girl itching to get off the island and see the world.

At that time she was loved by two men, the sweet, meek Costa and the gleefully arrogant and ambitious Manos. Costa only wants to stay on the island and tend olive trees, while Manos, like Sophia, wants adventure.

For a man from Elia, the first step to an adventurous life means becoming a palace guard, or evzone, in Athens — you’ve seen those guys wearing the fustanellas whose 400 pleats symbolize 400 years of Greek slavery under the Turks or somebody. Anyway, those pleated kilts open doors. Manos gets the job fairly easily, while nebbishy Costa is hired as an evzone flunky, a shameful fact he won’t reveal to Sophia.

When the boys’ tour of duty is up, Sophia visits them in Athens against the wishes of Xenia, her perpetually mourning mother, who only wants her to stay home, get married and have babies — “You will find happiness here if it kills me!” she wails. But in Athens things don’t go precisely as Sophia plans. When Manos dumps her to head for America, she settles for pot luck and marries Costa. But that’s not the biggest mistake of her life.

The actors flourish under Sam Viverito’s breezy direction. Each character is likable, even the caddish Manos, played as a youth by the burly Michael Freeman, who also plays Nicos, the handsome nitwit son of a local couple, and the martyred, coffee-ground reading Xenia (Evangelia Kingsley).

Carolee Goodgold’s older Sophia is sultry and pleasingly waspish, while Shauna Goodgold plays both the younger Sophia and Sophia’s daughter, Eleni. Shauna navigates the contrast between the two girls beautifully; her Sophia fiery and restless, her Eleni such a sweet and pious homebody that she’ll even settle for marriage with Stavros (Jesse Manocherian), a biddable idiot who reeks of fish.

Rounding out the cast are John Allen Biles as Costa, patient with both his olive groves and his jangled wife; Patrick Riviere as the older Manos, who returns to Greece with the big belly of American prosperity and loops of gold chains across his hairy chest — you’ve seen these guys, too. Riviere is also hilarious as an Evzone recruiter, strutting in his uniform and proclaiming in a Minnie Mouse voice.

Marci Reid is great as Voula, Nico’s overprotective mother, as is Ron Johnson as Vasili, the boy’s grumbling father. Anthoula Katsimatides is sprightly as a flirt and Demetrios Bonaros has perfect comic timing as the beleaguered priest. As the island’s only cleric, he has to listen to everyone’s problems, which the villagers sharply remind him of in the “To Complain” number.

The actors, by the way, sing with passion and tenderness, and the musical numbers, choreographed by Viverito with assistance from Katsimatides, are also great fun. Michael Hotopp’s set and Scott Borowka’s lighting are perfect. The set is simple, with white-washed walls, arched windows, blue doors and bistro tables and chairs. The lighting casts shadows that remind one of the Aegean sun falling through trellised grapevines. You can almost feel the heat and taste the retsina.

The costumes, from the floral shifts of the Sophias to the black of the priest’s vestments and the uniforms of the Evzones, are spot on.

Light and fluffy as phyllo pastry, “Opa! The Musical” will be at Queens Theatre in the Park through Oct. 25.

If You Go

Opa! The Musical

When: Oct. 23-24, 8 p.m.; Oct. 25, 3 p.m.; Oct. 22, 2 p.m.

Where: Queens Theatre in the Park, Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Cost: $16-$18

Contact: Box Office760-0064

Web site: queenstheatre.org

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