Nov 5, 2015
For as long as director Jerry Mitchell and choreographer Sergio Trujillo can keep their new Broadway musical in motion, and they do so for nearly all of its wonderfully vivacious and entertaining first act, On Your Feet is a dazzling display of Latin-American musical culture, telling the professional and romantic story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, two Cuban-Americans who broke out of the ethnic restrictions of the music business with the Miami Sound Machine.
The show opens at full speed with conductor Lon Hoyt generating infectious licks from his dynamic on-stage thirteen piece orchestra. Trujillo’s dancers supply bursts of energy that are nicely flavored with individual personalities, with pint-sized youngster Eduardo Hernandez exuding gasps and cheers with his lightning-fast footwork.
Bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris utilizes a score made up of familiar hits like “1-2-3,” “Get On Your Feet” and the groundbreaking crossover hit “Conga,” to tell a story that, while based on real life, is loaded with familiar situations. His cleverest move is to ignore chronology, letting the songs serve the situations rather than presenting them in an “and then they recorded” format. Musical selections are listed alphabetically in the program with no indication of who sings what.
17-year-old Gloria, who writes songs as a hobby while preparing to attend college, is invited by the slightly older Emilio to sit in with his band, The Miami Latin Boys. When her lead vocals and attention-grabbing dance moves start exciting audiences, a name change is in order.
Ana Villafane makes an impressive Broadway debut as Gloria, growing from a shy teen to a confident professional. Alexandria Suarez is a joy to watch in her brief time as young Gloria, singing and dancing with her neighbors.
As Emilio, Josh Segarra is a strong and sympathetic presence, continually fighting his way through white promoters who are happy to promote their Spanish-language records to the Latin market, but who don’t believe their sound is American enough to succeed nationwide.
At one point, Segarra’s proud and persistent Estefan looks a white executive straight in the eye and calmly explains, “You should look very closely at my face. This is what America looks like.” It’s a moment obviously calculated to draw applause but by that time it’s easy to get emotionally caught up in Segarra’s sincere and empathetic portrayal of a man who truly believes in the American dream.
Gloria has her own obstacles to deal with; mainly a mother who’s against her going into show business because all the time on the road takes her away from family responsibilities like helping to care for her little sister and her father with multiple sclerosis.
Andréa Burns has the task of playing the downer mom who, as we find out, was forced to give up her own chance at a showbiz career for the sake of her family. In the obligatory nightclub flashback where Burns gets to strut her talented stuff, we see where Gloria got her talent from.
Alma Cuervo is delightful as the feisty grandma with the funny lines and Eliseo Román, as Gloria’s father, has a lovely moment when she imagines the bed-ridden man on his feet singing “When Someone Comes Into Your Life,” offering the advice she needs.
The dance-heavy first half ends on a high point with audience members being pulled out of their seats to join the company as they dance up the aisle, but On Your Feet loses steam when the melodramatic plot takes over in a second act that concentrates on family and romantic issues leading up to the bus crash that almost kills Gloria. It takes nearly a year of physical therapy before she hesitantly gives a televised comeback performance.
While the pre-existing song catalogue serves Dinelaris’ book well in the first half, concentrating on the creation of the music, On Your Feet‘s second act suffers from a common trap when jukebox musicals turn dramatic; there are no songs that specifically address the issues at hand. With little to dance about, the show drags its heels to the plot’s triumphant finish that immediately blasts into a boisterious finale, full of spangled costumes and energetic dance solos.
Certainly those who come into On Your Feet with a love for the music of Gloria Estefan and The Miami Sound Machine will find the story more compelling, especially when the love of her fans is shown to play a key role in the leading lady’s rehabilitation, but the musical’s success is predominantly dependent on the wonderfully entertaining moments supplied by the dancers and music.