Nov 5, 2015
There’s a statement about immigrants in that other Broadway musical with a mostly Latino cast that could just as well be in the script for “On Your Feet!” — “We get the job done.”
That other show, “Hamilton,” is about perseverance and the American Dream, which happen to be identical themes radiating through the new appraisal of the lives of Cuban immigrants Gloria and Emilio Estefan. “On Your Feet!” is now open at the Marquis Theatre.
“On Your Feet!” is uneven and occasionally long-winded. It’s also sometimes inspiring and uplifting. The two lead performers, Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra, are charismatic, in different ways.
Numerous jukebox musical tropes are at work in “On Your Feet!” A first-act montage seems drawn from Broadway’s how-to guide for depicting grassroots persistence, as Miami Sound Machine members fight to get “Conga” on the radio by “taking it to the people” at a bar mitzvah, an Italian wedding and a Shriners conference.
The visuals are fun; the idea, corny.
What the musical does best, though, is illustrate the sacrifices it took for the Estefans to succeed. The duo puts up a chunk of their own money to see this story told. That probably ensures a certain perspective, but we still see intimate moments of anger and guilt between husband and wife.
A trio of heavy-hitters helped get “Feet!” on its way. Writer Alexander Dinelaris won an Oscar for his “Birdman” screenplay; “Kinky Boots” director Jerry Mitchell is at the helm; and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (“Memphis” and “Jersey Boys”) has his salsa-loving cast gyrating every which way they can.
Over two and a half hours, we learn how young Gloria cared for her father, wounded at both the Bay of Pigs and again in Vietnam. We experience the tug-of-war between Gloria and her mother (a strong Andréa Burns, of “In the Heights”), who is jealous of her daughter’s opportunities, with good reason.
And we see a violent recreation of the 1990 tour bus accident that broke Gloria’s back. Gloria Estefan was in the audience at the performance I saw this week — can we fathom what it must be like for her to watch? (There seems to be confusion among ticket buyers about whether the singer, 58, is in this show. She’s not, of course, though members of Miami Sound Machine are in the orchestra.)
Villafañe, also a Cuban immigrant from Miami, looks and sounds like Estefan. When she covers the hits (“Anything For You,” and so on), we’re back in the bouncy, pop-music part of the 1980s. As Grammy-winning producer Emilio Estefan, Segarra (“Lysistrata Jones”) sings in a subdued way. His acting is more engaging, and his entrance, in a pair of only-in-Miami shorts, is charming.
Dinelaris’s book does some unnecessary pandering. Gloria’s grandmother (Alma Cuervo) is a winking caricature whose antics diminish the story-telling. There’s a coarse record company executive who seems to exist for reasons better explained by Sir Robin in “Spamalot” — “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews!”
The finale has the ensemble performing a glittery mash-up of “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Turn the Beat Around” and others. In that spot, at least, “On Your Feet!” rivals top-notch jukebox musicals. “On Your Feet!” isn’t quite “Jersey Boys,” but in places, the rhythm is gonna get you.