From the first moments of On Your Feet, the Broadway musical celebrating the life and music of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, I thought: This show is sure to be a hit despite what any critics say. But it was the bar mitzvah scene that clinched my prediction.
That didn’t arrive until the end of Act I, when Gloria (Ana Villafañe, making a memorable Broadway debut) and Emilio (hunky Josh Segarra) land on a strategy to become crossover artists, breaking out of a strictly Latin market: They play a bar mitzvah. This is followed by an Italian wedding, and then by a Shriners convention. Then the bar mitzvah boy, the bridesmaids and the Shriners all dance and sing together:
Come on, shake your body baby, do the Conga
I know you can’t control yourself any longer
forming a Conga line up the aisle of the Marquis Theater, grabbing members of the audience on aisle seats to join them.
Is this audience engagement at its corniest? Is it blatantly catering to a Broadway demographic? Are the Estefans, who are producers of this show about them, executing another strategy for crossover appeal, this time in the theater world? Maybe, but it will work. On Your Feet is as much by-the-numbers as any other Broadway bio or juke box musical, but when the numbers are “1-2-3” – the name of one of Estefan’s many electrifying hits – the average theatergoer will surely find it easier to forgive the formulaic aspects of the show.
After that opening blast of light, music and dance, which is supposed to be taking place in a concert in Washington D.C. in 1990, the action flashes back to 1966, with Little Gloria (Alexandra Suarez) in a Cuban-American neighborhood in Miami entrancing her neighbors with her musical talent, and sending tape recordings of her singing in Spanish to her father who is serving in Vietnam.
The musical then goes chronologically forward, soon offering up the teenage Gloria (back to Villafañe), who, at the urging of her grandmother Consuelo (Alma Cuervo), sings for the first time at a rehearsal of the Miami Latin Boys, and their band leader, Emilio. Suddenly, the lights focus just on Emilio and Gloria – like the scene where Maria and Tony first meet in West Side Story – but not satisfied with mere spotlights, the set also mechanically disassembles, whisking away the rest of the cast so that Emilio and Gloria are the only two left onstage. When the song has ended, the rest of the cast (and the furniture they’re sitting on) is whisked back.
The original composition Gloria sings to Emilio in this scene, “Anything for You,” was actually one of her hit songs almost a decade after they were married. The creative team, which includes veteran Broadway director Jerry Mitchell (who both directed and choreographed Kinky Boots), smartly attempts to fit in some of the songs where they are most appropriate, not relying strictly on the “and then they wrote this” approach.
But that’s about as innovative as it gets. As with Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Story (to cite just the two currently running Broadway musicals of the same genre), On Your Feet faced a challenge: How to turn a playlist into a Broadway musical.
Here’s the problem: With just one horrendous exception, Gloria Estefan has led a charmed life. One of the most popular performers in the world, she has sold 100 million albums. She is apparently happily married to her first-and-only boyfriend, the Estefans mixing family life and professional life in an exemplary manner; they have a diversified empire including recording studios, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and an ownership stake in the Miami Dolphins football team, as well as two healthy children and a three-year-old grandchild. They have not (as far as we know) been addicted to drugs, nor had run-ins with the law, nor even, once they were successful, experienced a slide in their popularity. She even seems to be a lovely woman.
How does one interest an audience in such a happy family?
The show’s solution seems to be for librettist Andrew Dinelaris to borrow conflicts from the celebrity-bio playbook and resolve them at the speed of an episode in a family-oriented TV series.
*Our heroine is shy, and needs to bloom into her talent, which she does after a couple of scenes.
*Her mother opposes her pursuit of a music career, and her interest in Emilio, but eventually comes around. This particular conflict is more complex than usual, in large measure due to the stand-out performance of Andrea Burns, whose maternal nagging is supplemented with some sultry sizzling as a nightclub chanteuse in a flashback
*The music executives are short-sighted dopes (not quite the villains they are in some other such musicals), but they soon come around.
Before they do, however, there is an opportunity to inject a little ethnic pride. “Listen to me, you’re not back home anymore,” the executive says to the Estefans when they tell him they want to make an album in English. “So you don’t make the rules.” Emilio gets up from the desk, getting right into the man’s personal space, and says “This my home. And you should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not… this is what an American looks like.” – which gets the loudest applause in the show. (It’s somewhat surprising that more is not made of their immigrant background.)
*The one horrendous trauma in Gloria Estefan’s life was a traffic accident that nearly killed her in 1990. She fully recovered, but it was a dispiriting process. One scene shows a series of Estefan’s fans reading aloud their get-well cards, which encourages her to make a triumphant return in 1991, which is when the musical ends.
It’s a testament to the acting that, for all the calculation evident in the book, a family feeling comes through. There is another advantage: The music of the Estefans and their Miami Sound Machine is dance music, an ideal opportunity for the 30 lithe cast members and the Colombian-born choreographer Sergio Trujillo, already celebrated for choreographing seven Broadway shows, including dance-happy Memphis, to knock us out with some sensational Latin dancing. That first number in On Your Feet is “The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” and it does.
On Your Feet is on stage at the Marquis Theater (1535 Broadway, New York, NY 10036, on 46th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue).
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