Review Roundup: ON YOUR FEET! Opens on Broadway
‘On Your Feet!': Theater Review.
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. 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. But just try keeping the grin off your face when two massive human chains — of cast and audience members — flood the aisles of the Marquis Theatre right before intermission in On Your Feet!
Charting the rise to international superstardom of Gloria Estefan, and her triumphant re-emergence after near-tragedy struck, this biographical musical is an infectious account of the lives and careers of the Latin music crossover sensation and her producer-musician husband Emilio Estefan. The jukebox musical checks off all the usual-suspect plot points: humble roots, showbiz hurdles, tragedy, triumph, plus a gratuitous dance concert as a chaser.
That’s the way to go with a surefire audience pleaser like this jukebox musical built around the life and career of Cuban-American superstar Gloria Estefan. Newcomer Ana Villafane (who originated the role in the show’s Chicago premiere) is a knockout in the leading role, the dazzling centerpiece of this flashy, splashy spectacle helmed by Jerry Mitchell. Like other recent behind-the-music Broadway shows, Beautiful and Motown, the book here by Alexander Dinelaris (an Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of Birdman) is hardly a model of robust dramatic construction. It’s brisk and perfunctory rather than nuanced, and the protagonists’ professional conflicts are almost non-existent — we know they went on following their mid-1980s breakthrough to sell an estimated 100 million records worldwide. Following a rousing production number (“Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”– what else?) to open the show on a high note, flashback scenes set in Miami quickly establish A) young Gloria’s phenomenal voice, B) her devotion to her father and touchy relationship with her mother, and C) the joyous Latin spirit of the show, expressed in the rousing “Tradicion.” In no time flat, 17-year-old Gloria (Villafane, staking her righteous claim on this career-making role) meets her future husband, the dashing Emilio Estefan (Josh Segarra, making the girls swoon).
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. And after auditioning for him with the very beautiful “Anything for You,” she soon becomes the showcase singer-songwriter in his band, the Miami Latin Boys — appropriately re-christened the Miami Sound Machine. And there’s such genuine joy — plus a refreshing suggestion of modesty — in the telling of this Cuban-American success story that it transcends any shortage of social context. It resembles “Motown: The Musical” in its look at the struggles minority musicians face and the show “Beautiful” in the way it celebrates songwriting.
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. Political aspects might be limited to the occasional sweet homeland acknowledgment, but the show’s arrival at a historic point in the renewal of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. makes its timing serendipitous.
Luckily, she’s persuaded by the good advice (“What’s the use of writing songs if nobody hears them?”) of her grandmother Consuelo (the wonderful Alma Cuervo). 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. She won me over easy as “1-2-3.” Book writer Alexander Dinelaris (“Birdman,” “Zanna Don’t”) begins the action just before the Cuban American pop superstar’s devastating bus crash in 1990. There’s actually a more substantive source of dramatic conflict in hints that Emilio (now Gloria ‘s producer-manager) might be overworking his wife for the sake of his own ambitions.
Instead, we’re directed to cheer on Emilio as he takes on the snow-white music industry for exposure in mainstream markets, fighting for the elusive crossover hit that will propel their Latin music into pop heaven. 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.
Gloria’s frisky, always supportive grandmother (Alma Cuervo) puts it succinctly with a remark about the junk in Emilio’s trunk. “Nice culo,” she says. The crowd around them melts to leave only Villafane singing to Segarra the tune “Anything For You.” The bus crash is handled quite understatedly, followed by Segarra singing a nifty “Don’t Want to Lose You” and the lovely duet “If I Never Get to Tell You,” an original song with lyrics by Gloria and music by the couple’s daughter, Emily. Even at its most shameless — trotting out adorable pint-size dancing dynamo Eduardo Hernandez to pound the floor, or transforming the curtain calls into a megamix concert — it’s impossible to deny the production’s generosity of spirit.
The second act explodes with a full-bodied version of “Get On Your Feet!” and continues the show’s up-up-and-away trajectory for Gloria, who seems eerily present in Villafane, with her powerhouse voice, performance savvy and little-sister resemblance to her role model. Perhaps the show’s best moment is when the couple is trying to gain traction for their budding hit “Conga,” and they perform it at a bar mitzvah, a wedding and a Shriner’s convention, a zany sequence that harkens back to classic Broadway. At this point, there are still no clouds of conflict darkening Gloria’s charmed life — although we’re all breathlessly anticipating the 1990 road accident that would leave the superstar paralyzed at the height of her career and give this uplifting show a shot of heart-searing pain. 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. Working with choreographer Sergio Trujillo, he hustles the action along with an emphasis on sinuous, salsa-based movement, facilitated by the ease and adaptability of designer David Rockwell’s key set element — tall panels of white, wooden window shutters that evoke both Havana and Miami.
ESosa’s eye-catching costumes also straddle two worlds, evolving from crisp whites and colorful ruffled skirts that twirl through establishing numbers to glitzy performance outfits later on. But a moment of glory dawns in a flashback to Havana during the revolutionary days of the 1950s, when Fajardo, a club performer, sings the heartbreaking “Mi Tierra” as she prepares to flee her homeland.
Gloria’s triumphant post-accident comeback at the American Music Awards recreates the emotional finale with the heart-stirring “Coming Out of the Dark.” Emilio steps into the light, emerging from behind the scenes. Plot-wise, the big breakthrough comes when Gloria identifies the Latin pop crossover sound she wants — the classical salsa rhythms of Cuban comparsas, with “a funk baseline and a strong back beat on the drums and all the lyrics in English.” Structurally, the show builds to the full flowering of this Cuban-fusion sound, song after familiar song from the Estefan canon, mounted in full production numbers for Villafane’s dynamic voice, backed up by a robust singing-and-dancing chorus.
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. There are times when Emilio finds the words, including when he rails at a record executive determined to keep the Estefans from crossing over to American mainstream pop. “You should look very closely at my face,” Emilio says. “This is what an American looks like.”
Nederlander, Estefan Enterprises, Inc., Bernie Yuman, Roy Furman, Terry Allen Kramer, Catherine Adler, Caiola Productions, Reg * Grove, IPN / Albert Nocciolino, Stewart F. Her own youthful dreams were crushed when she left behind a singing career in Cuba, and sadness struck her marriage when her husband developed multiple sclerosis after returning from Vietnam.
Lane / Bonnie Comley, Pittsburgh CLO, Eva Price, Iris Smith, Broadway Across America, Larry Hirschhorn / Double Gemini Productions, Marc David Levine / Burnt Umber Productions, and Stella La Rue / Lawrence S. By contrast, the hurdles on the road to success seem mapped out only to be instantly cleared in Dinelaris’ thin book: The record company insists on sticking to the Spanish-language market, refusing to let them record in English? The moneymen balk at an unprecedented $50 million contract for a female artist? “Then I’d say you have yourself a problem,” responds Emilio with unflappable cool. 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.
Even without the book’s hasty foreshadowing that something bad is going to break the momentum, Estefan’s fans will be bracing for the collision when a truck smacked into the band’s tour bus in 1990. 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. Segarra’s performance gains in intensity in the aftermath, and the show’s depiction of how the family pulled together at such a difficult time is quite affecting, its sentimentality entirely earned. Mitchell and Trujillo also handle the resulting nine-hour spinal surgery with tasteful restraint, creating a lovely dream ballet during which Gloria sings “Wrapped.” Given the exposure of Latin ballroom on shows like Dancing With the Stars, Trujillo’s choreography admittedly strikes a lot of familiar poses, but there’s a thrilling intimacy to the partnered dancing, in both exuberant and romantic modes.
The Afro-Cuban rhythms, whether unadulterated or filtered through a broader pop idiom, give the show a seductive beat, and the athletic ensemble makes it all look easy as the men fling their partners up onto one shoulder or the women dip into a vertiginous sweep across the floor. She’s a natural, not only bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to the young Gloria Estefan, but also producing a fine facsimile of the original’s vocal power.
Balancing softness with a feisty side, she provides a captivating human center to this enjoyable show, helping to elevate it above the more workmanlike aspects of its assembly. Cast: Ana Villafane, Josh Segarra, Andrea Burns, Alma Cuervo, Alexandria Suarez, Eduardo Hernandez, David Baida, Henry Gainza, Linedy Genao, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Nina Lafarga, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Marielys Molina, Doreen Montalvo, Genny Lis Padilla, Liz Ramos, Eliseo Roman, Luis Salgado, Jennifer Sanchez, Marcos Santana, Brett Sturgis, Eric Ulloa, Tanairi Sade Vazquez, Lee Zarrett Presented by James L.
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