Sweet Charity, the tale of three-named Charity Hope Valentine, the dance hall hostess with a heart of gold and terrible luck with men, requires a triple-threat performer who can sing, dance and act, seemingly without effort. After all, the show’s original director-choreographer, Bob Fosse, created the show in 1966 for his wife and muse, Gwen Verdon, the reigning female star of that golden era of Broadway.
Fortunately, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has found such a talent in Jennifer Sanchez, who puts an Hispanic spin on the role, just as director-choreographer Marcos Santana’s imaginative production gives the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical a taste of salsa.
The show is based loosely on Federico Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, softening the central character from a prostitute to a taxi dancer. Whether or not Charity does more than dance with her customers remains unclear, though one of her Fandango Ballroom cronies describes her heart as “like a hotel, with guys checking in and out all night.”
When we first meet her, Charity is smitten with Charlie, a relationship with little future after he grabs her purse and pushes her into a lake. Then there’s a brief encounter with film star Vittorio Vidal, who hooks up with her to make his girlfriend jealous. And eventually there is Oscar Lindquist, a neurotic accountant who actually proposes marriage to her.
The episodic show is accompanied by a jokey book by Neil Simon and a jazzy score by Coleman and witty lyrics from Fields. Standout numbers include the giddy “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” the wistful “Baby, Dream Your Dream,” Charity’s dramatic 11 o’clock solo “Where Am I Going?” and the show’s signature introduction to the Fandango ensemble, the brassy, brash “Big Spender.”
While it is a total tangent to the narrative, “The Rhythm of Life” is also a showstopper in its evocation of a 1960s hippie happening and alternative church service. And filling out the score is the inclusion of the title tune, added from the show’s movie adaptation.
Sweet Charity was always strong in dance – its only Tony Award was for its choreography. Here, Santana divorces it from Fosse’s quirky, double-jointed moves to his own style, most notably in a Latinized take on “I’m a Brass Band.” He only disappoints on “Rich Man’s Frug,” originally a send-up of Sixties dance fads, now turned into something generic.
If the show was designed as a star turn for Verdon, the leggy, charismatic Sanchez fills those considerable shoes quite capably. She sings with gusto and proves to be a deft comedienne in a sly, silent sequence in Vidal’s apartment closet. Even funnier is Jesse Swimm (Oscar), who enters late in the first act, promptly gets stuck in an elevator with Charity and goes into a gravity-defying freak-out. Other cast standouts include Ashley McManus as Charity’s sarcastic sidekick Helene and Brett Sturgis as the “high” priest of the Rhythm of Life congregation.
The production is a visual knockout, thanks to Adam Koch’s scenic design, with neon accents by lighting designer Cory Pattak and video touches by Steven Royal. Jen Caprio’s costumes lend an apt tackiness to the Fandango dancers’ come-hither look and the nine-piece orchestra is smoking hot under music director/keyboardist Andrew David Sotomayor.
Charity Hope Valentine may be unlucky in love, but her travails make for a sweet musical. And with the endearing Jennifer Sanchez in the spotlight, the result is another winner for the Maltz, not to be missed.
SWEET CHARITY, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, Jan. 29. $68-$120. Call 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.