Review: Broadway show about Estefans a fine addition to jukebox musicals
‘On Your Feet’ review: The good, the bad and the conga-licious.
The audience joins in the dance, and in a flash, Broadway is thrust into the vibrant, sparkling — and sometimes harrowed — world of Latin music’s most successful crossover artist.Miserable affairs, angsty German teens and sad-sack British royals — in shows like “Thérèse Raquin,” “Spring Awakening” and “King Charles III” — have made the season a dour one.The recipe may be familiar, but the flavor is fresh in “On Your Feet!,” the half-formulaic, half-original and undeniably crowd-pleasing musical about the lives of Emilio and Gloria Estefan that opened on Thursday at the Marquis Theater.
As the first Latina singer to become a crossover sensation with tunes popular in both English and Spanish-speaking markets, Gloria has sold over 100 million albums worldwide during a career spanning three decades, and has earned seven Grammy Awards to boot. To cite the most unusual element: Many a musical could be described as a car crash, but I can’t think of any in which such a calamity figures as a dramatic turning point. Her life and rise to fame with husband and record producer Emilio is the basis of a new musical now on Broadway, a colorful production set to her iconic mega-hits. “Quite honestly, whenever I’ve done a concert or a show, the whole point is to make a personal connection,” says Estefan. “Hopefully people like the music, recognize it and enjoy it, but what we really want to do is touch on that human aspect.” Spanning her early days as a Miami Sound Machine frontwoman, the horrific tour-bus accident that left her with a fractured vertebrae in 1990, and her legendary post-recovery performance at the 1991 American Music Awards, On Your Feet! includes famous chart-toppers like “I See Your Smile,” “Conga,” and “1-2-3.” Just don’t make the mistake of calling the show a standard jukebox musical. “I don’t know if any other jukebox musicals has ever done an original song for the play,” notes Estefan, who as a child would save up her allowance to see shows at Miami’s Coconut Grove theater. “I don’t think Mama Mia has, or the Jersey Boys. USA Network “Sirens” star Josh Segarra heads the cast as Emilio — for better or worse — and Broadway newcomer Ana Villafane, a fellow Miami Cuban who even graduated from the same high school as Gloria Estefan, is a dazzling as the lively songstress. But I wanted to create something just for this play.” Deeply involved in the creative process from the show’s conception to its pre-Broadway run in Chicago, the Cuban-born artist was sorting through old fan letters to use in the show when book writer Alex Dinelaris (Birdman) gave her a call with a specific assignment. “He said, ‘I have the scene I want you to write the tune for,’ and described a whole hospital scene with my mother on one side of me, and Emilio on the other side with [my son] Navid,’” she recalls. “I had the hook in my head right away.” Based on a tune that daughter Emily originally composed for a high school music assignment, the emotional ballad “If I Never Got to Tell You” was a way to incorporate her youngest child into the production, whose story ends before her birth.
But with her musical aspirations of her own, was the younger Estefan – a college senior – ever a candidate to portray her famous mother on stage? “Everybody tried to hound her into it, but she said ‘Mom, I’d have to kiss Dad. – Villafane is as resilient and magnetic as her part requires, and in her over-moussed curls, leather and sequin-laden jackets, she is certainly a believable Gloria. This biographical jukebox musical packages every showbiz cliché — rags to riches, tragedy and triumphs — between hits like “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “1-2-3.” If you have a weakness for sultry singers in leather chaps and bedazzled toreador pants, so much the better. Estefan and a commanding Josh Segarra as her husband and musical collaborator, neatly showcases the boppy dance-floor hits and swoony ballads that made Ms.
Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra play the Cuban-American couple who at first struggled to sell their Latin-pop crossover — “rice and beans with hamburgers” — to mainstream America. She herself told me, ‘Mom, there’s no way I’d be ready for something like that.’” Instead, Gloria is played by Ana Villafañe, a 26-year-old Miami native making her Broadway debut. The show capably covers the couple’s connection to the Cuba that Emilio, and Gloria’s parents, fled in the midst of the Communist takeover; one of the most satisfying interludes is a flashback set in a Havana nightclub, where Gloria’s mother (the excellent Andrea Burns), later an embittered Miami housewife, sings a sensuous “Mi Tierra.” The evening’s warm-and-fuzzy quotient is more than adequately filled by Gloria’s doting grandmother (an expert Alma Cuervo), who encourages her magnetic granddaughter’s ambitions even when Gloria’s mother tries to rein in both her dreams and her feelings for Emilio. The play’s moniker launches full force at the end of Act 1, when the monster hit “Conga” sends the ensemble into the crowd for a dance line, ripe for audience participation.
The two share similar coloring, Cuban heritage and even attended the same all-girls high school, though Gloria insists when it came to casting her leading lady, she “didn’t want a clone.” “There was something about her demeanor,” recalls Estefan of Villafañe’s audition. “I went, ‘Oh my god, this girl could be my daughter. The Estefans’ can-do attitude is on witty display in an early musical sequence meant to demonstrate the universal appeal of their rhythms: The Sound Machine’s infectious energy turns every gig, whether a wedding, convention or bar mitzvah, into an exhilarating party with a Latin beat. And after the final notes of “Coming Out,” the wonderfully sharp, 17-piece Latin band regains center stage and rousing versions of “Turn The Beat Around” and “Everlasting Love” leave the show in a shimmy-sure place. It’s not that she sounded exactly like me, but that’s not what we were going for …I wanted someone who could interpret my life.” It’s a life that Gloria says hopes will inspire others, with its deeply personal narrative about love, loss, and getting back on one’s feet.
Sergio Trujillo’s high-energy choreography — a mix of sensuous Latin ballroom and pelvis-busting acrobatics — propels the action, but the show belongs to its cast. – The supporting cast is very strong, namely Estefan’s parents, portrayed by Andrea Burns and Eliseo Roman, both best known for roles in “In The Heights.” Roman delivers perhaps the show’s most resonant vocal, during a duet of “I See Your Smile” with Villafane. Villafañe’s Gloria is sexy in an approachable, likable way, while Segarra’s Emilio is just as hot but also endearingly self-deprecating — half the jokes are at the expense of his thick Spanish accent. Singing improvised compositions and strumming her guitar, she listens to encouraging words recorded on a tape by her father, José (Eliseo Roman), who is away fighting in Vietnam: “You’re a born artist, my angel. And one day you’re going to be a big star!” Such rote dialogue comes as a jarring surprise, given that the book writer, Alexander Dinelaris, shared an Oscar for the screenplay of “Birdman.” (His less impressive stage credits: the ill-received musical “The Bodyguard” in London and the dreary “Red Dog Howls” at New York Theater Workshop.) Throughout, Mr.
Despite Hispanic roots, the male lead’s lagging, relentlessly raspy Cuban accent is grossly inauthentic, and his singing voice is sweet, but a mere whisper compared to the rest of the cast. As Gloria’s mother, Andrea Burns gives a vivacious, tart performance as a sort of anti-Momma Rose, whose disapproval of Gloria’s ambitions stems partly from envy; her father quashed her chance early in life to become the Spanish voice of Shirley Temple.
It may be barking up the wrong tree to expect tremendous conflict from a show designed for the crowd to sing and dance along, but besides the bus accident, Gloria and Emilio’s career path isn’t so exceedingly unique. Yes, their decisions brought them to greater heights than most, but Gloria’s mother wanting her to use her college degree, or the band struggling to get radio play is true of many acts. Like a Gloria Estefan concert — which is essentially what “On Your Feet” turns out to be — there’s plenty of feel-good and excitement, but when the fans leave the theater, the conversation isn’t likely to expand beyond “well, that was fun.” – A pseudo-angelic ensemble scene, with the cast all draped in white — seemingly to portray heaven while Estefan undergoes a nine-hour back surgery — and slinking around singing “Wrapped” as Villafane spots her now-dead father and grandmother, is unnecessarily avant-garde in the otherwise stick-to-the-jukebox show.
Then again, the energy sags and the invention flags when the musical reverts to the story of Gloria and Emilio’s path to professional success. “You’re Emilio Estefan. You play music with the Miami Latin Boys,” Gloria’s grandmother helpfully announces when Emilio comes looking for the young woman whose musical talent he has heard about. Estefan’s and gives a feisty and funny performance that blossoms emotionally when Gloria’s accident sidelines her career, and she and Emilio come into conflict over her comeback plans. Segarra brings a forceful magnetism and swarthy good looks to his performance, although his scruffy singing voice does no favors for ballads with lyrics like this: Still, there’s no lack of zest in the musical, which has been directed with button-pushing professionalism by Jerry Mitchell. It rarely misses an opportunity to flaunt its allurements, including a lively cadre of dancers and lovely sets by David Rockwell that evoke Miami and the old Havana gracefully.
The conga that concludes the first act features a perky young boy in a skullcap (long story!) brandishing maracas as he sings and dances to the percolating beat, beaming a big smile to the balcony.
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