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A CurtainUp Review
On Your Feet
By Elyse Sommer
The show pulsates with the funky Latin beat that's made Gloria Estefan the music world's major crossover success. It's also got a schmaltzy and inspiring story: Gloria and husband Emilio's love affair — with that beat, with America, with the American Dream, and with each other.
Since the Estefans are closely involved with the show and doing more than their bit to promote it, don't expect a juicy tell-all bio-musical. This is a loving tribute to this musical power couple's talents and can-doism — their triumph over career obstacles, familial problems and life-threatening tragedy, all without the usual detours to relationship and substance abuse problems.
The fans who are the core audience to fill the giant Marquis Theater will thrill to the vibrantly staged songs they know and love and the Latino empowerment elements of Alexander Dinelaris's book. Dinelaris, who scripted the Oscar-winning Birdman, and Jerry Mitchell, whose many directing successes include Kinky Boots, have created a smoothly structured musical narrative. There's no shortage of ballads. But the show most naturally, and at its best, focuses on the high-stepping numbers buoyantly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo.
This is no ersatz presentation of the Estefan sound. The on-stage orchestra is partially populated as well as led by veterans of the Miami Sound Machine which in the 1970s and 1980s introduced the Estefan brand of traditional Cuban music into the mainstream. Given the extensive concertizing by Estefan and the Sound Machine, the musical aptly begins with a blazingly lit concert-like opening and a song with the kind of rhythm that, true to its title and lyrics, "is gonna get you." The lively singing and dancing to "get you" is well supported by ESosa's glittery, glamorous costumes and Kenneth Posner's lighting which animates David Rockwell's scenery.
The story jumps from its flashy beginning back to 1960s Miami, where young Gloria Fajard's journey to super stardom begins. Her partnership and love affair with an ambitious garage band leader named Emilio Estafan must overcome her inherent shyness and her mother's objection to her being in a band rather than pursuing a more stable life style.
The role of Gloria is a stunning Broadway debut for Ana Villane who actually looks and sounds a lot like Gloria Estafan. The more experienced Andrea Burns and Alma Cuervo are cast standouts — Burns as the mother whose bitterness over her own aborted dream of stardom fuel the familial rifts. . . Cuervo as the endearing and delightfully amusing grandmother Consuelo who's determined that her granddaughter will have the dream that her mother lost. Burns is pure dynamite in a flashback to 1950s Havana during which she metamorphoses into a glamorous young club singer dressed to the nines and faced with leaving Cuba.
Josh Segarra embodies the determination of the ambitious Emilio and has the looks and charm for the role's romantic requirements. However, his heavily accented English can be difficult to understand. His occasional tongue twisted dialogue does amusingly clarify that, unlike Gloria, he was already a teenager when he came to Miami.
Eliseo Roman is touching as Gloria's beloved father Jose. Though jailed for a while as a member of the ousted Battista regime, he too made it to Miami, only to leave his family once again for a stint in Vietnam and, once back, is crippled by a debilitating muscle disease.
At Grandma's urgings and with her mother's reluctant consent, Gloria joins the Miami Latin Boys. In the charming "1-2-3" we see the shy girl become a confident, compelling singer and dancer. Like Teyve in A Fiddler On the Roof she also sings of "Tradicion" (Tradition, Tradition will/Carry On/ From my Song/My Cuba's never gone").
Despite the group's increasing success, Gloria and Emilio pursue what heretofore has been an impossible dream: to break out of America's Latin Music ghetto. No surprise as to whether they'll succeed, but the way they go about doing so is the most fun part of the show. With inexhaustible perseverance they hit the bar mitzvah and ethnic wedding circuit to break down radio DJs' resistance to dance-heavy tunes. These whirlwind sequences include some especially head spinning dancing by Eduardo Hernandez who doubles as both the Estefan's son Nayib and a young Emilio.
The first act ends with the super hit "Conga" sending the entire cast up the aisles, and getting many aisle sitters up on their feet with them. That exhilarating number rounds out a basically complete story. But of course there are more battles to be won.
It's in the second act that a crash of the Estefan tour bus almost kills Gloria and puts her career on hold for a year of intensive physical therapy. True though it is, the difficult recovery and the way it ends the estrangement with Gloria's mother does add a somewhat treacly flavor to the show. And, as the mother of a son who had Harrington rod surgery after a severe accident, I couldn't help wondering how Villafane's Gloria could have such a relaxed, seemingly pain free upright walk while still undergoing heavy duty therapy.
Dinelaris's book and Mitchell's direction contain other weaknesses. Most result from what struck me as misconceptions about what the audience knows and wants to know about the Estefans' Horatio Alger saga. Besides counting on the audience to be able to fill in the rather sketchy details, any additionally supplied information comes too late to undo earlier confusion. For example, the fact that Gloria's mother needs her help with the laundry and her ailing dad's care because she's gone back to school is not explained until a much later mother-daughter confrontation. And the mother's complaint about Gloria's gypsy life with Emilio unnecessarily refers to her actually having graduated from college with a psychology degree. There are also the sequences about Emilio's own immigrant story which seem sandwiched in.
These flaws notwithstanding, this is one of those sincere, uplift stories people like to identify with. No matter, if it's too sanitized for your taste, since the ticket selling draw is the music and the high energy staging. Even if you don't own a single one of the zillion or more Estefan albums, the rhythm is indeed likely to get to you.
Note: I'm including a song list though the program doesn't include one — probably, to underscore the integration of music and story.
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On Your Feet!
Featuring Music produced by Gloria and Emilio Estefan & Miami Sound Machine
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Jerry Mitchell
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Cast: Ana Villafane (Gloriaa), Josh Segarra (Emilio), Eduardo Hernandez (Nayib/Young Emilio), Alexandria Suarez (Little Gloria), Andrea Burns (Gloria Fajardo), Alma Cuervo (Consuelo), Genny Lis Padilla (Rebecca), Carlos E. Gonzalez (Kiki), Luis Salgado (Kenny), Lee Zarrett(Phil), Henry Gainza (Marcello), Eliseo Roman, Eric Ulloa (Guitarists), Omar Lopez-Cepero, (American DJ), David Baida (Latin DJ/Antonio), Eric Ullova (Chris/Dr. Neuwirth), Nina LaFarga(Robin), Omar Lopez-Cepero (Warren), Doreen Montalvo (Nena/Lucia), Jennifer Sanchez (Amelia)
Set Designer: David Rockwell
Costume Designer: ESosa
Lighting Designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound: SCK Sound Design
Projections: Darrel Maloney
Hair & wig Design: Charles G. LaPointe
Music Coordinator: Patrick Vaccariello
Dance Music Arrangements and Dance Orchestrations: Oscar Hernandez
Orchestrations: Gloria and Emilio Estefan
Stage Manager: Thomas Recktenwald
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including 1 intermission
Marquis Theatre 1535 Broadway
From 10/05/15; opening 11/05/15/closing 4/03/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/31/15 press preview
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